Want gun reform? Republicans who support gun control need to run in the primaries

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Richard Barton is a doctoral student in government at Cornell University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)March for Our Lives and other demonstrations that have students at the forefront protesting gun violence are showing the nation a new, formidable political force. These young people are eloquently and passionately demanding meaningful gun reforms, and developing the organizational capacity and resources required to effect real change.

Richard Barton
The best way for them to use their growing political power is to advocate for the recruitment, training, funding and campaigning of Republican primary challengers who want to run on a pro-gun control platform.
A recent CNN poll shows that Republican voters are starting to pull away from the GOP's traditional stance on guns. This indicates that many Republicans are willing to support new candidates. Moreover, some of these Republicans have the talent and ambition to run for elected office. They just need encouragement and support.
    Although many may believe that voting against all Republicans will get the nation closer to enacting gun control measures, Republicans -- not all or even most but a sizable minority -- are actually needed to do so.
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    The Republican Party controls each branch of government. Even if Democrats win back control of the House and Senate in the November midterms -- and that is a big if -- they will still have to work with a Republican President and get at least 60 votes in the Senate. If Democrats do win back Congress and enact meaningful gun regulations, these reforms will be fleeting if the GOP simply repeals them once they regain power. And regardless of federal policy, state laws will continue to play a major role, and Republicans have unprecedented control of state governments.
    Swift, meaningful and durable reform is only possible if gun control advocates can alter the electoral calculation for Republican politicians.
    To understand how students can help do this, we need to put our finger on the exact political problem. Why is the GOP so steadfast in its opposition to reasonable gun regulations?
    The National Rifle Association notoriously provides campaign contributions to the Republican Party, but donations are not the real source of the gun lobby's influence. The NRA largely controls the GOP on gun policy by mobilizing its members in Republican primary elections. The NRA closely monitors and grades legislators, and shares this information with members. If a Republican lawmaker supports gun control reforms -- or even wavers in opposition -- the NRA can send out an email that mobilizes mass opposition in the next primary.
    Imagine yourself as a typical Republican legislator under these political conditions. You invested a great deal of your own money and time to run for office and you really want to win re-election. You sincerely want to protect the Second Amendment, but in private you also recognize the need for some of the gun reforms staunchly opposed by the NRA. When it comes down to it, you know that voting for stricter gun laws will prompt a fiercely competitive primary election that can quickly snuff out your political ambitions. And you can be equally confident that no primary challenger will attack you for being too conservative on gun policy.
    Gun reform advocates need to change this electoral calculation. And they can by threatening incumbents though the nomination process. This has happened before in the Democratic Party.
    By the 1960s, a powerful alliance of unions and civil rights organizations reshaped the Democratic Party, from the bottom up, and made racial liberalism a core party commitment. However, during the 1970s, activists opposed to school integration policies weakened this commitment by supporting primary challengers. Anti-busing activists empowered House candidates to run competitive challenges against Democratic incumbents in states as diverse as Massachusetts, Michigan, Kentucky and Texas. These activists were diligent and persistent.
    For example, Rep. Louise Day Hicks, a Massachusetts Democrat, entered office on the anti-busing wave in 1970, but was challenged two years later by another-movement backed candidate, who criticized the congresswoman for being insufficiently committed to the anti-busing cause.
    Most of these movement candidates did not beat their incumbent opponent, but the threat was real, and the message was clear. The anti-busing movement neutralized powerful pro-integration forces in the party, and altered the electoral calculation for Democrats in Congress. Some congressional Democrats remained deeply committed to civil rights, but many others, including a young Joe Biden, abandoned earlier positions and supported a series of bills that tied the federal government's hand in enforcing integration policies.
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    A similar effort can move the Republican Party to the center on gun policy.
    The gun control movement -- catalyzed by the students from Parkland, Florida -- should channel their energy and resources to play this supportive role for Republican office-seekers. This can include founding an organization that recruits and trains candidates, similar to Emily's List, which recruits and trains women, and forming a political action committee to spend money on their behalf. By recruiting, training and supporting sympathetic Republicans, gun reform advocates can neutralize the power of the NRA.
    Since legislators pay close attention to potential threats long before a primary election, mobilization influences legislative behavior almost immediately. Even if the pro-gun control Republicans can't win many primaries, their presence in the races is enough to make a difference. By recruiting and training candidates to run for the 2020 elections, and demonstrating the ability to fund and mobilize support for them, Republican legislators will defect well before their next primary.

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    Gun control activists across the ideological spectrum should provide financial and organizational support to pro-gun control conservatives if they hope to achieve real change. This approach can pull the Republican Party back toward the center on gun policy and produce meaningful and durable reforms that may save many thousands of lives. Right now, students have the power to make this happen.