Motivated opponents, ambivalent supporters
Everyone knew, after the massacre in Las Vegas, that gun control was not going to get anywhere. The public conversation about guns hit the usual notes — its very roteness is by now one of those notes — but this time more of it focused on why gun control has such poor prospects.
Much of the discussion centered on just why gun control’s critics are so irrational. CNN political analyst Chris Cillizza said that the central reason for congressional inaction on guns is that supporters of gun rights believe, baselessly, that liberals are out to grab their guns. Charles Sykes, a conservative disaffected by the rise of Donald Trump, argued in the New York Times that the National Rifle Association had made the issue part of the culture wars.
David Brooks, in the same newspaper, put the culture wars in an economic context: Deindustrialization had made people in rural and industrial parts of the country feel their way of life is under attack. If not for that, supporters would be able to see that gun regulations “don’t seriously impinge freedom” — as “research” (astonishingly) shows. David Frum told CNN viewers that racial and sexual anxieties lay at the root of pro-gun sentiment.
Many commentators noted that most people want more regulation of guns, and devised explanations for their inability to achieve this goal. Max Boot wrote in the Daily Beast that Congress should have vastly strengthened the ban on assault weapons instead of letting it lapse. Why hadn’t it? “Political gridlock is killing us. Literally.”
E. J. Dionne Jr., Norm Ornstein, and Thomas Mann argued in the Washington Post that anti-democratic features of our government — including gerrymandering, the filibuster, and the overrepresentation of rural areas in the Senate — had thwarted the majority’s preferences. Dahlia Lithwick offered a convoluted explanation to Slate readers: The gun lobby had fooled the reasonable majority into thinking that a 2008 Supreme Court decision had declared all gun regulation unconstitutional, even though it had not.
Lithwick provided no evidence that this misimpression is widespread, let alone that it has the consequences she asserted. It is a theory that does little to explain why gun laws looked so unsatisfactory to gun-controllers before 2008. But a failure to explain obvious features of the political landscape is not unique to her theory.
Consider the last time the Senate voted on assault weapons. It was in 2013, after the Sandy Hook massacre, when Democrats controlled the chamber. A bill to reinstate the ban that had been in place from 1994 to 2004 got only 40 votes. Two of the noes came from the Democratic senators of Colorado, a state that has a lower-than-average rural population and is not notorious for its shuttered factories. It wasn’t “gridlock,” in any normal sense of the word, that beat this legislation, and it would not take gridlock to defeat the stronger version Max Boot favors. It wasn’t the filibuster or gerrymandering, either.
What none of these explanations grapples with is a fact that politicians in both parties know well: There are many more intense, relatively single-minded supporters of gun rights than opponents of it. An elected official is much more likely to lose office because he voted for regulating guns than because he voted against it.
Political commentators’ theories about the fervor of gun-rights supporters are not always well grounded. Cillizza writes as though the possibility of a slippery slope is a fantasy concocted by the NRA. He ignores Barack Obama’s lauding of Australia, which confiscated guns, as an example of what sensible policy can accomplish; Nancy Pelosi’s recently expressed desire that small restrictions lead to bigger ones; and all of his fellow commentators who have called for sweeping bans and confiscations (including Boot).
But even if these explanations accurately described the mindset of pro-gun voters, they would leave out the other side of the equation. What the commentators generally don’t even try to explain is why so few voters share their own passion for restricting guns. Why don’t they act as though they believe our gun laws are “literally killing us”?
Gallup has been polling Americans about guns for years. It finds public support for many regulations, and sometimes broad support. “Universal background checks” drew 86 percent approval in its most recent test of the issue. The public also believes that “easy access to guns” is a major factor in mass shootings.
At the same time, public support for a ban on the civilian ownership of handguns has been falling for decades. In 1959, 60 percent of the public favored the idea and 36 percent opposed it. By 1975, support had fallen to 41 percent and opposition risen to 55. Now there’s a 76–23 percent supermajority against the idea.
If this change in public opinion reflects increased anxiety about masculinity, or economic shifts, it is odd that there has been no corresponding increase in the percentage of Americans who own guns. Since 1959, the percentage of Americans who tell Gallup they own a gun has dropped from 49 to 39.
Other poll results may get us closer to an answer. Gallup also asked its respondents whether they thought the background checks, which they nearly uniformly supported, would make a difference for mass shootings. Fifty-three percent said it would make little difference or no difference at all. In 2013, Gallup asked about school shootings: Should Congress focus more on changing gun laws or on improving school security procedures and the mental-health system? Sixty-five percent gave the latter answer, 30 the former.
Gallup’s peers have found similar results. Quinnipiac found majority support last year for a ban on assault weapons — other pollsters haven’t — but also found that a plurality didn’t think it would do much to reduce gun violence. A CBS/New York Times poll found that 26 percent of the public, a minority not much larger than the one that wants to ban handguns, thinks that “stricter gun control” would “help a lot” to stop gun violence.
Here then is another theory. Over the last 60 years public confidence in government has declined. Most people do not believe that it would be sensible for the government to try to disarm the population, no doubt in part because of the immensity of the task and the resistance it would spark. (The number of guns in circulation in the U.S. is generally estimated to top 300 million.)
They favor a lot of less sweeping measures to regulate guns, but they do not attach great urgency to these measures because they doubt they would do much good. That view, incidentally, lines up with the data about the effects of gun regulations, as even some of their advocates admit. Boot, for example, concedes that any positive effect of the assault-weapons ban on homicides was undetectable.
And because they have a rational basis for not seeing the gun regulations as important, these ambivalent voters let other issues determine which candidates to back. Pro-gun voters thus have political influence over gun policy disproportionate to their numbers.
The evidence we have from polls and politicians’ behavior does not, admittedly, prove this theory. But it is at least compatible with that evidence, unlike the prevailing punditry.
The theory also leaves open a question about the thinking of a third group, besides the gun-rights enthusiasts and the ambivalent general public. What motivates the passionate gun-controllers? If saving lives is the goal, then directing more police resources to high-crime areas might have a bigger impact than any push for gun control, as Robert VerBruggen discusses elsewhere in this issue. So might public attention to suicide among the elderly, as statistician Leah Libresco recently concluded in the Washington Post after reviewing the literature on gun policies.
Liberals pride themselves these days on their empiricism, yet policies such as these do not seem to excite their interest as much as a campaign against guns. Sykes wrote that the “N.R.A. has successfully taken the issue of rational gun regulation out of the policy realm and made it a central feature of the culture wars.” Perhaps this has not been the achievement of the NRA alone.