Young Republicans aren’t clinging to guns like the rest of the GOP.
As former President Donald Trump and new campaign entrants, including former Vice President Mike Pence, tout their Second Amendment bonafides and opposition to “gun confiscation” to 2024 primary voters, some Gen Z and millennial Republicans are moving in the opposite direction: A significant share of younger conservatives, reared in an age of mass violence, embrace firearm restrictions.
One poll conducted by Harvard’s political institute this spring found that a clear majority of young conservatives supported mandatory psychological exams for gun purchasers. A separate, recurring survey from YouGov concluded in March that Gen Z and millennial Republicans are more likely to believe in tougher gun laws than older Republicans and that young conservatives’ support for the idea has grown in the past year.
The generational disconnect suggests broader GOP opposition to gun restrictions will be a steady irritant inside a party already struggling to appeal to young voters. It could also challenge White House hopefuls and members of Congress to eventually refine their message on guns with Republican primary and general election voters, even if the concerns of young people won’t transform GOP politics overnight.
“There are some concerns from Gen Z voters specifically, mainly because they’ve had to deal with it more growing up — it’s become more rampant in society,” Joacim Hernandez, the elected chairman of the Texas Young Republican Federation, said of gun violence.
“But at the same time, I really don’t know when and where that conversation within the party will happen,” Hernandez said in an interview. “You still have a lot of elected officials and Republicans within the party who don’t believe we should have government interference when it comes to owning guns.”
A partisan divide and age gap on gun restrictions remains deeply embedded in American politics. Concern about mass shootings tends to spike in the aftermath of attention-grabbing attacks before fading. But access to firearms has been a bedrock principle for the GOP for decades, and polls show older Republican primary voters remain some of the strongest firearm supporters in the country. Plus, recent polling from ruby-red Texas underscores the complexity of the GOP’s internal split.
A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll last month found 64 percent of all Texas Republicans supported raising the age limit on gun purchases and the concept of “red flag” laws that require people determined to be a risk to themselves or others to surrender their firearms. Republicans under the age of 45 tended to support those measures at higher rates than older party supporters, Texas Politics Project Director James Henson said after examining the poll’s underlying response data at POLITICO’s request.
Yet Texas legislators have considered an array of gun restrictions with little progress. Low voter turnout in the state helps create competitive GOP primaries that invite challengers eager to exploit any backlash to liberal-backed gun safety policy. Other political concerns are competing for attention and Texas conservatives overall tend to blame a wide range of factors for mass shootings — but not guns.
“You can find evidence that younger Republicans appear less strongly in favor of gun rights instead of public safety considerations,” Henson said in an interview. “But the difference is not so big, and the share of young Republicans is small enough as a share of overall Republicans that I would not expect there to be a shift in the center of gravity on guns driven by younger Republican voters.”
Despite the headwinds in Texas, young conservative attitudes seem to be evolving nationwide in a way that some Democrats and gun safety advocates see as an opening for new policies.
Not only are a significant share of Republicans voicing support for liberal-aligned gun laws, but politicians are increasingly confronted with a cohort of young people whose lives have been marked by campus gun attacks and schoolhouse shooter drills.
“I think Republicans certainly have a generational issue on guns and other issues,” said John Della Volpe, a specialist in millennial and Gen Z voter research who advised President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
A national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics in mid-March found that 59 percent of young Republicans supported requiring psychological exams for all gun purchases — a version of “red flag” measures largely supported by Democrats.
“The right to feel safe in school, safe in public and safe in your own home is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed if anyone is going to have a conversation with younger people moving forward,” said Della Volpe, who is also the director of polling at Harvard’s political institute.
“If there’s no alignment on the issue that these values are real, that they’re coming from someplace central to the lives and identity of a generation, then the GOP is likely to be a regional party by the time this generation hits middle age,” he said.
The Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The YouGov Social Change Monitor, a biweekly survey of 1,500 U.S. adults conducted between June 2020 and March 2023, found Gen Z and millennial Republicans’ nationwide support for more restrictive gun laws increased to 47 percent in February compared to 41 percent in August 2022. Thirty-two percent of young Republicans said the Constitution only protects access to guns for militias — more than double the share of older Republicans who expressed that belief.
Thirty-six percent of young GOP backers in the Harvard poll meanwhile said gun laws should be more strict than they are now. A combined 27 percent of young Republicans even said they strongly or somewhat supported an assault weapons ban.
“There is a clear generational divide, particularly within the Republican party,” said Zeenat Yahya, policy director of the March for Our Lives gun safety advocacy organization.
“We’re seeing this uptick in young Republicans caring a lot more about this issue — that’s completely fair when young people are the ones bearing the brunt of this issue as it’s the leading cause of death for children and teens,” Yahya said. “It really makes it clear, in my opinion, that the Second Amendment isn’t necessarily the third-rail political issue politicians think it is.”
And there are signs the White House senses an opportunity.
Vice President Kamala Harris held a campaign-style rally in a suburban Virginia high school gymnasium Friday, showcasing how gun restrictions and young voters will play in Biden’s reelection pitches.
“It is a false choice to suggest that we have to choose between either supporting the Second Amendment or passing reasonable gun safety laws,” Harris said. “We can do both.”
But Texas, the site of what Biden described as the “killing field” of Robb Elementary as he commemorated the Uvalde massacre’s one-year anniversary, illustrates the slim chance young conservatives alone will shift the GOP’s gun politics.
“I think people prefer the safety of being armed,” said Hernandez, the young Texas Republican. “And if at some point, a weaker generation prefers for the government to just take care of them, then that will be the case.”