By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gun control advocates are planning to send birthday packages to newly turned 18-year-olds in 10 states where they believe pro-gun lawmakers are vulnerable. Inside each: a voter registration form.
The effort is part of a teen voter sign-up campaign aimed at electing a gun control-friendly Congress in November by seizing the momentum of a movement driven by young people shaken by gun violence, organizers told Reuters.
“I think young people are going to make a huge difference in this election, and the new energy we're seeing is going to tip the scales in a number of races," said Isabelle James, political director for Giffords, which advocates more restrictive gun laws.
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The campaign, "Our Lives, Our Votes," combines the efforts of Giffords and two other groups following last month's massive rallies inspired by the deadly February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Organizers said they hoped to register at least 50,000 18- and 19-year-olds in 10 battleground states.
"America's children took to the streets and led marches with a unified message that rang out across the country: We need a Congress that will protect us," former Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, co-founder of Giffords, said in an emailed statement. Giffords was seriously wounded in a 2011 Arizona shooting rampage.
The other groups behind "Our Lives, Our Votes" are Everytown for Gun Safety, which includes more than 1,000 current and former mayors, and NextGen America, a liberal group founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.
Starting with a $1.5 million war chest, organizers said they would reach teenagers with online voter registration ads as well as the direct-mail birthday packages.
Organizers said the elections they were targeting included competitive races for the Senate and House of Representatives in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Republicans are battling to maintain control of both congressional chambers in the November elections.
Although the teen-voter registration campaign is non-partisan, "the sad political reality is that we do need a Democratic majority (in Congress) because we need leadership that’s willing to work with us and move forward," James said.
She said, however, that her group supported 20 Republican lawmakers who favor stronger gun laws.
The Republican-led Congress has been generally reluctant to impede the sale of guns, in the face of constitutional protection for the right to bear arms and lobbying efforts by pro-gun rights groups including the powerful National Rifle Association.
Last month, however, lawmakers modestly improved background checks and made clear that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could study the causes of gun violence.
The Feb. 14 massacre of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, turned several survivors into household names as youthful advocates for gun control. It also inspired the huge "March for Our Lives" in Washington and other cities last month.
Gun control advocates have called for nationwide background checks on gun buyers, a 21-year-old minimum age for gun ownership and a ban on the sale of assault-style rifles.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
LEAST LIKELY TO VOTE
At last month's rallies, nearly 5,000 people signed up to vote in the November elections, according to HeadCount, a non-partisan group that registers young people to vote at concerts.
But young people, especially teenagers, have traditionally been the demographic group least likely to vote.
Only 46.1 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2016 general election, the lowest participation rate of any age group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Organizers of the campaign, however, have been buoyed by anecdotal signs that the Parkland shooting spurred teenage voter activism.
In California, new voter pre-registration among 16- and 17-year-olds surged between March 14 and April 2, according to a state official, and a new Harvard poll among 18- to 29-year-olds found a marked increase in the number who said they would "definitely be voting" this autumn.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)