As CNN's poll guru Harry Enten points out, America doesn't want tougher gun laws so Republicans never suffer consequences for not voting for them.
The fatal shooting of 19 children and two adults on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, has shocked the country, evoking memories of other tragic school shootings such as Columbine, Newtown and Parkland, and renewing calls for Congress to do something.
But the response to those calls from many Republican lawmakers is the same now as it pretty much always is: The country should not have stricter gun control.
Why do these Republicans refuse to act? Beyond the fact that many believe stricter gun control would not prevent such mass shootings, a look at the data reveals that there is simply no political pressure to do so.
While there are certainly some Americans who want stricter gun control, the public at large is far more split on the issue than a lot of commonly cited polling data would have you believe.
Perhaps the best way to understand the public mindset on the gun control debate is to look at Gallup polling from earlier this year. The survey asked a simple question and a follow-up: Are you satisfied with the nation's gun laws? And if you're unsatisfied, do you want stricter or looser gun laws?
This year, only 36% of Americans said they were dissatisfied and wanted stricter gun control laws. Sixty-one percent were either satisfied (41%), dissatisfied but wanted less strict laws (13%) or dissatisfied and wanted no change (7%).
These numbers do shift somewhat from year to year, but the "dissatisfied and want stricter gun laws" opinion has never been a majority one this century.
The reason I like the question is because it gets at the intensity of feelings about the gun debate. Most people are generally fine with our country's gun laws (to the degree that they are satisfied) or want them to be less strict.
Even if you simply ask Americans if they want stricter gun control (i.e. without asking about satisfaction first), the country seems mostly split. At the end of last year, 52% of Americans indicated they wanted stricter gun control, according to Gallup. Forty-six percent, within the margin of error, either thought laws should be kept the same (35%) or made less strict (11%), the same survey found.
Of course, these numbers can be hard to comprehend when polls also indicate that north of 80% of Americans want universal background checks for guns, which Democrats have been pushing for in Congress and which most Republicans refuse to go along with.
Here's the thing: There's no sign the polling on background checks holds up in elections.
Consider the results of ballot measures in two states in 2016: Maine and Nevada voted within a point of the national presidential vote that year. The latter is quite ethnically diverse, while the former is overwhelmingly White.
A proposal to expand background checks passed by less than a point in Nevada and failed by a little less than 4 points in Maine.
Why would Republicans feel political pressure to support more gun control, when something that polls as well as universal background checks can't surpass the Democratic presidential baseline in swing states?
Americans refuse to make Republicans pay for blocking even simple gun control and background check measures, so why would Republicans (and multiple Senate Democrats) stop blocking them and stop taking millions in gun lobby money to do it?
Something has to change of course.
Many of the NRA’s biggest legislative victories since then continue to reverberate today, including “stand your ground” laws, the expansion of concealed carry, the expiration of the assault-rifle ban, and the passing of a federal law that shields arms manufacturers from liability when their guns kill people. The NRA even managed to cut off funding from the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the NRA had prevailed not just in passing a slate of favorable laws, but in waging a culture war that redefined the Second Amendment itself. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller for the first time that individuals had a constitutional right to carry a firearm. During the Obama years, gun sales exploded as the NRA told its members that the president wanted to take away their guns.
So when LaPierre valorized the “good guy with a gun,” he did so after decades of legislative wins. But the legacy of the post-Uvalde world may very well be different. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Biden asked on the night of the shooting — a marked difference from Obama, who initially hesitated to blame the NRA before launching an ultimately failed political attack. Gun-control advocates have also — slowly — been making some limited gains at the state level. About half of the U.S. population live in states with universal background checks, according to Peter Ambler, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization has also successfully pushed a law that allows courts to temporarily bar dangerous individuals from buying guns in Florida. According to Jeffrey Swanson, a psychology professor and researcher at Duke University, every ten to 20 guns removed through those laws prevents a suicide. Funding for gun-violence studies was restored to the CDC in 2019. Michael Bloomberg, whose group Everytown for Gun Safety lobbies for stricter gun-safety measures, spent millions electing candidates who backed gun safety in 2018, after the Parkland school shooting, and kept on heavily spending in 2020. After the Uvalde shooting and a racist massacre in Buffalo, New York governor Kathy Hochul called for raising the age of buying a gun in New York to 21. (The Uvalde killer bought his weapons immediately after his 18th birthday.)
The NRA is also in a weaker position than it was ten years ago, after extensive reporting from the Trace (where I used to work) and a subsequent lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James investigating the group for alleged misappropriation of funds. Leaked internal documents show that membership and revenue has declined for four straight years — a slowdown that halved its political spending during the last election compared to 2016. While the number of guns in the U.S. has exploded, the number of gun owners has basically stagnated at around three in ten from 2017 to 2021, according to Pew Research — which is actually lower than the nearly 50 percent rate in the 1970s. Most gun owners support measures like universal background checks and keeping dangerous or mentally ill people from owning guns — a clear divergence from the NRA’s no-surrender policy, which may explain why its membership rates are falling even as gun purchases are going up. And gun safety has become a way to get voters to turn out in the polls and elect candidates who want to rein in the gun lobby, such as Senators Mark Kelly — the husband of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in 2011 — and Chris Murphy, who had represented Newtown in the House before he was elected to the Senate.
Still, the pro-gun movement is not dead. Next month, the Supreme Court will rule on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a case that challenges New York’s ability to decide who gets a permit to own a gun. The ruling has the potential to be more far-reaching than the 2008 Heller decision, which largely affirmed people’s right to own guns. “If we end up with a really broad opinion on that issue, that the only kinds of regulations that are constitutional are regulations that exist in 1791 or close analogs, then all bets are off,” says Miller, the Duke professor. “All kinds of regulations are going to be challenged from guns on airplanes to people convicted of domestic-battery offenses.” Since the ruling would primarily impact states controlled by Democrats, however, gun-safety advocates expect that lawmakers would react with a new slate of restrictions. “I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change the landscape in the same way to overturning Roe v. Wade would for abortion,” says Ambler from Giffords.
Just another day in Gunmerica.