Editor’s note: This is the third of four stories in a series on the gun culture in the nation and state written by Tribune reporters Kim Dunlap and Carson Gerber, as well as other CNHI reporters from across the nation. Part 4 titled “Second Amendment interpretation central to national debate over firearms, public safety” will appear in Saturday’s edition.
Paul Helmke, director of Indiana University’s Civic Leaders Center, said when it comes to legislation surrounding guns, Hoosiers are watching a split screen.
On one screen is Indiana’s permit-less carry law that took effect Friday, allowing anyone 18 or older to carry a handgun without a permit. The bill loosens gun control and puts Indiana in line with 22 other mostly GOP-led states that have similar legislation.
On the other screen is the gun-control bill signed by President Joe Biden last month, which marks the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years.
Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who received millions in campaign donations from the National Rifle Association and is seeking reelection this year, surprised most Hoosiers when he joined 14 other GOP senators to sign off on the bill.
Now, as the nation grapples with an onslaught of mass shootings, Indiana voters are watching the split-screen legislation and parsing out how it might effect their decision when they head to the ballot box in November.
And how Hoosiers vote could have a major impact on future gun laws in Indiana. All 100 seats in the Indiana House of Representatives are up for election, along with half of the state senate seats. Voters will also cast ballots in all nine U.S. House districts, as well as the Senate race between Young and Democrat Thomas McDermott.
Helmke, the former three-term Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who today advocates for more gun control, said Indiana’s loosening of permit restrictions and the federal gun-safety bill may pull voters in different — and unexpected — directions.
He said the fact Young joined Democrats to pass the federal law could cause some state GOP candidates to shift their views on gun control and how they package their messaging while on the campaign trail.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Helmke said “Todd Young is going to be traveling the state and presumably going to political events with both the congressional candidates and legislative candidates, and there’s going to be a pretty clear conflict in their position.”
McDermott, the Democratic mayor of Hammond running to replace Young, said he tipped his hat to Young for his vote on the federal gun bill, but said it didn’t go far enough to curb the spike in mass shootings.
He said those shootings, along with the gun-control issues surrounding them, are brought up nearly every day he campaigns, mostly from women and, in particular, mothers.
“The Second Amendment is something I constantly hear about, no doubt about it,” McDermott said. “I think right now, one consistent thing that I’m seeing on the campaign trail is women and mothers are concerned about automatic weapons, Roe v. Wade and losing our rights.”
But Bill Friend, a former state representative who served for 26 years and retired in 2018 as speaker pro tempore, said Young’s vote on gun control hurt his reputation in many parts of the state.
“I can tell you that he didn’t score a lot of points out here in rural Indiana,” Friend said. “I’ve had numerous people mention to me that they were very disappointed in him getting on that bill.”
That’s the case for Hoosier Gun Rights, a nonprofit that pushes for “100% firearms liberty for Indiana.” Will Fite, the group’s director of legislation, said in a recent fundraising email that “the gun grabbers have been emboldened thanks” to Young.
“This means that the next session could be an interesting one for the Second Amendment in Indianapolis,” Fite said in the email.
The mixed legislation coming from the state and Congress comes as most Americans support some kind of gun-reform law.
A new poll conducted by POLITICO and Morning Consult after a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, left 19 students and two teachers dead, found 88% of voters strongly or somewhat support requiring background checks on all gun sales. The poll found 67% strongly or somewhat support banning assault-style weapons.
But will public appetite for stricter gun legislation play a prominent roll in Hoosier voters’ decision in November?
Leo Morris, a columnist for the conservative think tank Indiana Policy Review and a former long-time journalist, says no.
“I don’t think it’d be much of an issue at all,” he said. “At least, it might be in 2024. But I don’t think it will be this year.”
Morris said that’s because the biggest issues in the election are the historic inflation pinching voters’ wallets and the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
He said even though some residents may support tougher gun legislation, that’s not at the forefront of their mind when they head to the polls.
Friend agreed. During a normal year, he said, the federal gun legislation may have elevated 2nd Amendment issues for voters. But with record-high gas prices and the cost of food increasing, guns can’t compete with the economy.
“As they make their consideration and their final decision, I think they’re going to look, first and foremost, at what’s most important: the economy and inflation,” Friend said. “I think that’s the biggest overriding issue.”
Helmke also agreed gun issues won’t play prominently in this year’s election. But as high-profile mass shootings continue around the country, he said, debate around the 2nd Amendment is sure to stay in the national spotlight.
“When’s the next mass shooting?” Helmke said. “Where will it be and how do people respond? Because you know there’s gonna be another one.”