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April is Autism Awareness Month

Harris is taking the lead on gun violence prevention. Will she reach young people?

Vice President Harris speaks about gun violence during the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting in Washington on  Jan. 18, 2024.
Jose Luis Magana
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AP
Vice President Harris speaks about gun violence during the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting in Washington on Jan. 18, 2024.

Vice President Harris says young voters could create a "sea change" on the issue of gun violence prevention if they turn out and vote.

It's an issue that the Biden campaign says will help motivate a key part of its base of support — and one where it sees Harris as being an effective messenger.

"On this issue, it is a lived experience," Harris told U.S. mayors in Washington on Thursday, describing what she's learned from talking to younger people about the gun violence epidemic.

"They are aware of the solutions. And I think, frankly, when they start voting in their numbers, we're going to see a sea change."

At the White House, Biden put Harris in charge of this issue

Harris has long been talking aboutgun violence prevention, dating back to her first position in office as a district attorney in San Francisco.

"I have witnessed and seen autopsies. I know what guns do and gun violence does to the human body," Harris told the mayors. "For so many of you — you, too, know what gun violence does to people, to a community, to families, to the psyche of a community."

In September, when President Biden created the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, he tapped Harris to lead it.

Gun violence prevention is an issue Harris has spoken about frequently from the White House. Last month, she convened state legislators for a meeting on taking state level action on gun control.

In June, Vice President Harris marked National Gun Violence Awareness Day with an event at a Virginia high school. In the run-up to November, Harris is trying to drum up support from young voters.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
In June, Vice President Harris marked National Gun Violence Awareness Day with an event at a Virginia high school. In the run-up to November, Harris is trying to drum up support from young voters.

But as focus turns to the reelection campaign, Harris is making gun violence prevention an issue she brings up all over the country. It even comes up at events that aren't specifically focused on it.

Last year, for example, she embarked on a tour of college campuses around the country, where her office says she met with more than 15,000 students. And gun violence came up at every stop.

On the campaign trail, gun violence is an issue Harris will champion

In a recent poll from Tufts University, 26% of young people said gun violence prevention was a top issue for them in the 2024 election. Among young Black voters, the number jumped to 36%.

As enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris ticket has waned among young voters in recent months, there's been an added focus from the vice president on connecting with young voters and the issues they prioritize.

"The more that she's out there talking and connecting to these folks, it also, I think, earns her credibility," Eve Levenson, the Biden campaign's newly announced Director of Youth Engagement, told NPR in an interview.

The campaign says they're framing the conversation around gun violence in a similar way they are to other issues likereproductive rightsand education, by putting it in the context of freedom and civil rights.

"That is what young people want, is to be able to have that freedom and to be able to have a government that's supporting them and not constraining them," Levenson said.

Gun violence is the number one killer of children in the U.S.

One in fivepeople in the U.S. have a family member who has been killed by a gun. And gun violence recently became the number one killer of children in the United States.

Ryan Barto, a spokesperson for March for Our lives, a gun control groupstarted after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., said the anxiety around gun violence and the prevalence of it in young peoples' lives has led to them turning out to vote with the issue in mind.

"Especially when it happens in your community, it changes things. And it definitely, definitely turns out people to vote. It's why, again, we've seen year after year the youth vote be one of the most powerful forces in our election," Barto said.

Biden's support from young voters has sagged

In the 2020 election, youth voter turnout was critical for Biden's success, and young voters also helped Democrats cinch control of the Senate in the two run-off races in Georgia.

John Della Volpe with Harvard University's Institute of Politics conducts polls with young people. He said younger voters consider "basic human rights" top of mind when they think about a variety of issues, including climate change, reproductive rights and foreign policy.

"It's really about wrapping thing together in terms of a set of values. That's what young people vote. They're values-based voters not transactional voters," he said.

Young voters have been less than enthusiastic lately about Biden. A recent poll from NBC News showed the president's support among 18- to 34-year-olds dropped from 46% in September to 31% in November.

Della Volpe pointed to Biden's continued support for Israel in its war against Hamas — which has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians — as one of the reasons for the decline.

"Recognizing the importance that young people put on that particular issue will be important ... hearing from the administration, and hearing that they respect the views of young people even though they may not always be in agreement, I think that goes a long way," Della Volpe said.

The campaign needs to do more to reach out to young voters

Abby Kiesa, the deputy director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, told NPR the Biden campaign has more work to do with young voters.

Getting young people to turn out to vote takes more more than talking about key issues and posting about them on social media, she said. Campaigns also need to teach new voters how to get engaged in the voting process.

"There's a lot of hard work to bring millions of young people into democracy," Kiesa said. "Millions of young people have turned 18 since the 2022 election."

The Biden campaign points out that it's still early — they have 10 months to go until November and want to earn younger peoples' votes. And that effort has started earlier in the year than usual, Levenson said.

In 2016 and in 2020, Democratic campaigns didn't hire a youth engagement director until later in the summer, said Levenson, who started her job this month.

"We're starting significantly earlier in terms of the youth engagement work," she said. "We're really excited to be able to have significantly more time to build out a really great program."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.