Why Gun Control Is a Losing Issue for Democrats

Especially in red states, they have been reluctant to call for a crackdown even after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Sen. Claire McCaskill
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Oct. 3, 2017, 8 p.m.

With Republicans in charge of government, legislative action on gun control is close to impossible, even in the wake of the Mandalay Bay massacre that killed at least 59 and wounded over 500. But to understand why gun-control efforts are so politically difficult, it’s more instructive to look at certain Democrats—the red-state variety who haven’t joined their national brethren in denouncing the National Rifle Association.

Six red-state Senate Democrats representing largely rural states are up for reelection in 2018, and not one came out for more gun control in the wake of the Vegas killings. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who cosponsored bipartisan legislation expanding the scope of background checks, has been notably quiet. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted against the background-check bill, and has no interest in bringing up gun control in the run-up to her reelection campaign. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the most liberal of the bunch, simply released an anodyne statement calling the Vegas attack “evil” and offering support for law enforcement. She knows the politics in Missouri better than the armchair pundits who insist that gun control is a slam-dunk issue.

Even in traumatized Nevada, a swing state where Democrats have been gaining ground, it’s tricky to talk about stricter gun control. The state has an above-average gun-ownership rate, and guns go hand-in-hand with the Wild West feel of its desert regions. Gov. Brian Sandoval, one of the most popular GOP governors in the country, recently vetoed legislation mandating additional background checks, while signing bills that offer additional protections for gun owners.

Jacky Rosen, the highly-touted Democratic congresswoman from Las Vegas running against Sen. Dean Heller, didn’t talk about gun control after the tragedy. Rosen spokeswoman Ivana Brancaccio said the congresswoman supports some action to deal with gun violence but didn’t specify any details. “No single policy change could prevent a mass shooting like this, but Congresswoman Rosen is committed to action that addresses the unacceptable rate of gun violence in this country and will help ensure fewer weapons designed to kill people end up in the hands of dangerous individuals,” Brancaccio said.

Why hasn’t there been momentum for gun-control measures, even in the wake of horrific tragedies? There aren’t any obvious answers, but here are some possibilities. One, the gun lobby fears that small-scale measures could be a slippery slope towards more drastic bans. With more outspoken anti-gun voices from the Left gaining influence within the party, it’s not an entirely unreasonable concern. Second, despite high-profile mass shootings, overall gun violence is down markedly since the mid-1990s, making the connection between growing gun ownership and the homicide rate awfully tenuous. Third, with growing fears of terrorism in the post-9/11 world, perhaps more people feel the need for self-defense—even with weaponry far beyond what’s necessary to protect a household. And fourth, with over 300 million guns in the country, gun-control advocates realize that cosmetic measures won’t have much of an effect.

National polls further explain the Democrats’ reticence: 48 percent of Americans said they had a gun in their household, according to an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey—the highest total since the pollster began asking that question in 1999. A 50 percent majority in the same poll said they worry that government will go too far in restricting the rights of citizens to own guns, versus 45 percent who think the government should do more to regulate guns. Two national polls conducted in 2016 (NBC/WSJ and Quinnipiac) found the NRA with net-positive favorability scores, despite the barrage of negative publicity. This is far from a slam-dunk political issue, despite what some talk-show hosts believe.

When Americans are asked broad questions about basic measures such as background checks, pollsters usually report broad support. But when polls drill down to details of the changes, that support steadily drops. Several recent polls found narrow majorities supporting bans on semiautomatic weapons, though the precise wording of the questions generate different results in different surveys.

But the potential for small-scale compromise is overwhelmed by the intensity of support among those who oppose increased restrictions. Opponents of gun regulations are often single-issue voters who are well-organized and well-represented in states across the country, red and purple alike. The NRA is a powerful lobby, not because it buys off politicians but because of the ideological commitment of its members.

A good political rule of thumb is that the party that’s divided is the one that’s on the losing end of public opinion on an issue. Republicans are driving the opposition, and they’re uncommonly united on this issue. Unless Democrats like McCaskill, Heitkamp, and Jon Tester start agreeing with their liberal counterparts, such as Chris Murphy and Kamala Harris, it’s hard to see any movement on additional gun regulations—even with a future Democratic president.

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