Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Has Support For Gun Control Tanked?

Nate Birkhead has an interesting and informative post up about lobbying and the power of the NRA. He notes that gun control has become far less popular over the last 20 years, and concludes:
 The NRA, though it is exceptionally powerful (and it is), would still not be able to suppress the interests of populace if there was considerable support for renewed gun control initiatives.  The problem for Rep. McCarthy and her allies: there’s very little public support for limiting access to guns. 
I think this is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn't explain why support for gun control has gone (in the Gallup numbers he cites) from massive support in 1990 to a slim majority against further gun control now. I don't know the answer, but I'll speculate that it was a three step process:

1. Democrats believed (true or not) that gun control was a major factor in the 1994 GOP landslide.

2. As a consequence, Democrats collectively decided that guns as an issue worked against them, and therefore dropped the issue.

3. From 1995 on, the flow of information from political elites was one-sided, as Republicans lined up unanimously behind gun rights while Democrats split among those who vied for NRA support, those who just didn't talk about it, and a small minority who carried on the fight against guns.

And what we know about public opinion is that if elite opinion is one-sided, the odds are that mass opinion will agree with the elite consensus.

So the question about the NRA isn't really whether their lobbying operation wins fights, but whether gun control was, in fact, a key issue that broke against Democrats in 1994, with a then-minority but intensely held position costing Democrats seats. And the second question would be why and how the NRA managed to convince Democrats that guns were responsible -- a tricky task even if it was true!

By the way, if you're wondering whether the Democrats really changed on this issue, check out the difference -- especially in emphasis -- between the 1992 and 2008 platforms, both of which had a section called "firearms."

It is time to shut down the weapons bazaars in our cities. We support a reasonable waiting period to permit background checks for purchases of handguns, as well as assault weapons controls to ban the possession, sale, importation and manufacture of the most deadly assault weapons. We do not support efforts to restrict weapons used for legitimate hunting and sporting purposes. We will work for swift and certain punishment of all people who violate the country's gun laws and for stronger sentences for criminals who use guns. We will also seek to shut down the black market for guns and impose severe penalties on people who sell guns to children. 
We recognize that the right to bear arms is an important part of the American tradition, and we will preserve Americans' Second Amendment right to own and use firearms. We believe that the right to own firearms is subject to reasonable regulation, but we know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne. We can work together to enact and enforce commonsense laws and improvements – like closing the gun show loophole, improving our background check system, and reinstating the assault weapons ban, so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. Acting responsibly and with respect for differing views on this issue, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe. 
Of course, that sort of comparison can't answer whether changes in the Democratic position caused or were caused by changes in public opinion.  I'm speculating that it was the former, but it's just a guess.


  1. The decline of gun control as an issue also seems to be linked with the decline of law and order as an issue. In some ways, both of these positions were a political response to high crime. So perhaps the decline of crime is really what is ultimately responsible here...

  2. The continuous decline in violent crime during the 1990's probably impeded the anti-gun movement, as well.

  3. Has anyone compared the effect of gun control to NAFTA in the 1994 election? I think trade agreements that make it easier for US firms to send jobs outside the country is more unpopular with the public then lax gun laws.

  4. While I'm a huge fan of the Brody argument, I'm not sure I buy it in this case. I think that the movement on this issue is more than I would have expected if it's just elite cues.


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