Universal background checks are perhaps the most popular policy ever to be enacted at the federal level. For more than two decades, polls constantly showed that between 80 and 90% of Americans Support extending checks to cover private sales, with high support consistently found among Republicans and gun owners.
Other gun reforms also enjoy strong support, including red flag laws, sanity restrictions for gun purchases, raising the legal age limit for buying a firearm, and safe storage laws intended to keep firearms away from children. Overall, support for tighter gun restrictions tends to be slightly lower, but retain the majority Support in more recent polls.
Now, in the wake of the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, a familiar cycle is repeating itself. National support for more gun restrictions is increasing, just like after Parkland in 2018 and the shootings in Dayton and El Paso in 2019. But again, this is unlikely to translate into changes in federal policy. While the House this week passed a sweeping set of gun restrictions, that has virtually no chance in the Senate, where negotiators are discussing a much narrower set of reforms.
What explains the divergence between popular opinion and the law, especially at the federal level? Here are some of the factors at play.
The squishiness of gun polls
While many individual gun reforms retain overwhelming support, and the overall national trend reflects the popularity of tougher gun laws, that doesn’t mean that all voters think that’s the biggest problem. most important.
“We’re taken aback by the fact that virtually everyone is in agreement on this issue – we’re a little misled by the near-consensus,” said criminologist John Roman. “But just because everyone agrees and shares an opinion doesn’t mean they’re all convinced of it.”
Many data support this idea. Gun control ranked second to last behind the economy, abortion, health care, immigration and taxes in May Monmouth University poll asking people to rank six policy areas as important to their midterm vote. The same August 2018 poll found gun control ranked fourth among the same set of topics.
A CNN/SSRS A February poll suggests conservatives even ranked gun policy as a higher voting priority, with 45% of Republican-leaning voters saying gun policy was extremely important to their vote in halfway through 2022, compared to 40% for Democratic-leaning voters.
When the poll did not translate to the ballot box
The background check policies garner overwhelming support in theory, but the policies have garnered less support in practice. Writing in The Upshot, New York Times correspondent Nate Cohn look at in four Democratic-leaning states that have recently held ballots on expanding background checks for guns or ammunition — California (for ammunition only, in 2016), Maine (2016), Nevada (2016) and Washington (2014).
The actual support each referendum received when voting was far below what one would have expected based on national survey data at the time. In Nevada, the state with the largest gap, actual support (50%) was 36 percentage points lower than expected; in Washington, the state with the small gap, actual support (59%) was still 22 percentage points lower. In each of the four states, the final vote closely resembled the partisan split each experienced in the 2016 presidential election.
The US Senate has often been the graveyard for politically popular policies. For gun politics, an explosion in popularity for new gun restrictions after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings failed to make a dent, with universal background checks failing of Manchin-Toomey in 2013.
This is partly due to the design of the upper house of two senators per state, which means that less populated rural states that tend to be more conservative are overrepresented. More importantly, the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster under current Senate rules prevents a simple majority from enacting legislation, as was the case. when Manchin-Toomey obtained an insufficient majority of 54 votes.
The divergence between polls and politics is often more pronounced at the federal level, but it is also evident in the states.
After the Oxford high school shooting in November, Will Van Sant of The Trace wrote about Michigan’s redistricting after the 2010 census. New state maps allowed Republicans to retain a greater proportion of seats in the state legislature despite winning less than 50 percent of the votes cast in the next five elections. As a result, proposals for gun reform in the state have never been heard.
A similar dynamic is evident even in dark red Texas. Forty-three percent of Texans support tougher gun laws, according to a recent poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. By comparison, 34% of those polled said gun laws should stay as they are and 16% wanted them to be less stringent. On nine times since 2015, a plurality or majority of Texans said they want tougher gun laws. So what explains the difference between these nuanced polls and the reality of the state’s much looser gun laws? “Primarily, an electoral system that prioritizes the political positions of a relatively small slice of the state’s most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries through low turnout elections and gerrymandering,” a said Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project. written in an editorial after the Uvalde shooting.
The relaxation of gun laws is always popular. And gaining ground in some places.
As Democratic-leaning states continue to push for stricter gun lawsas New York did it on June 6, Republican-leaning states moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps the biggest story in gun politics in recent years is the success of unlicensed carry. In 25 states, you can now carry a concealed handgun in public without any licensing requirements. Ten of those states, all led by Republicans, have passed laws in the past two years. There is similar push for such laws in Florida and other states with Republican-run state houses.
Finally, Americans bought more than 40 million guns in 2020 and 2021, the two highest years on record, according to our arms sales tracking. About 5% of American adults bought a firearm for the first time between March 2020 and March 2022, according to a University of Chicago NORC March Survey. These buyers — who were more likely to be younger and of color than in the past — were about as likely to support looser gun laws as pre-pandemic gun owners. But the million dollar question remains what effect more gun ownership has on political preferences.
Roman, who led the NORC survey, said: ‘We don’t know if people made the natural choice to own guns because they already shared these policies. [preferences] or whether it was the purchase of the gun that caused them to change their political preferences to align more with other gun owners.