Even though Christy Clark had been North Carolina director of a national gun control group, she didn't expect to talk much about gun issues when she began campaigning for the state House. Then a shooter opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
"When I started running I didn’t think gun violence prevention would be at the forefront of my campaign," said the Huntersville Democrat. "But then the Parkland shooting really brought that issue to the top of people's minds."
After school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas, Democrats appeared to have the momentum on gun issues. Polls began showing Americans more receptive to gun control. In Raleigh, Democratic lawmakers tried to introduce measures that would, among other things, extend the waiting period and raise the age to buy a gun.
But North Carolina Republicans aren't about to cede the high ground.
In the legislature they've pushed their own measures to bolster school safety. And they frame gun control efforts as a challenge to Americans' constitutional rights. At their convention in Hickory on Saturday, they're even planning a "Second Amendment Gala."
"We need to . . . remind people of our history," said U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a gun store owner and a keynote speaker at the gala. "When guns are removed from good people's hands, the criminals hang on to theirs' and crime goes up. Guns are the great equalizer."
Both sides of the gun debate expect it to be a factor this fall. And each sees it as a way to galvanize their base.
Democrats were encouraged by the response of Parkland students, who not only mounted a national "March for Our Lives" but successfully pushed for changes in Florida law.
"I think all of us thought that the Parkland kids' response was going to give added momentum to this issue," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who supports gun control measures.
A February poll for Progress NC Action, a liberal group, found that 84 percent of N.C. voters supported stronger background checks to prevent people with a history of domestic violence or mental illness from buying a gun. Sixty-percent favored a ban on "bump stocks," the devices that make a semi-automatic gun fire like a fully automatic weapon.
But Republicans found another way to frame the issue.
"Ask voters if they want their constitutional rights infringed upon," said Chris Turner, Mecklenburg County's GOP chairman. "The answer is 'No.'"
Tenth District GOP Chair Brad Overcash said blaming school shootings on guns is as misplaced as blaming trucks for terrorist attacks that mow people down on sidewalks.
"Attempts by the left to conflate the two are one, disingenuous, and two, a political tactic to fire up the left," he said.
David McLennan, a political scientist at Raleigh's Meredith College, said guns are a cultural issue for many voters.
"I think this is an attempt to get the cultural issues going so Republicans come out (to vote)," said McLennan. "It's all part of trying to gin up the Republican base. History tells us that cultural issues can be very effective for Republicans. It's a strategy that Republicans have used on a range of cultural issues."
Along with their defense of gun rights, Republicans plan to tout other steps they've taken in the name of school safety.
In Raleigh lawmakers have focused on building-safety upgrades, school resource officer training and mental health funding. Those were among recommendations made by a House study committee formed in response to the Parkland school shooting.
And in Washington Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act. Among other things it improves reporting systems for threats and includes training for students, teachers and law enforcement on preventing school violence. It put aside $1.2 billion for programs that Republicans say might have prevented Florida authorities from missing signals about accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz.
Clark, who faces Republican Rep. John Bradford in their north Mecklenburg district, said while supporting the Second Amendment is important, such policies are not the solution to gun violence.
"To put the focus on the Second Amendment and guns without thought to survivors is a little tone deaf," said Clark, former state leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "Parents ... are really worried about their children being shot and killed at school. And that there hasn’t been any action taken by Congress or the General Assembly to make schools safer."
Budd agrees — to a point.
"Whether you're opposed to gun rights or pro-Second Amendment we all share the same thing in common," said the father of three. "We’re parents. Our ultimate ends are very much the same. We want our kids to be safe."