Gun rights advocates know that, despite Newtown, the US public is only lukewarm about gun laws – and is cooling all the time
After a month of reported congressional movement on gun control, negotiations have apparently hit a snag. Democratic senators have decided to break up proposals into different packages – such as Senator Dianne Feinstein’s push for an assault weapons ban – instead of presenting one “Obama gun package”. And, unsurprisingly, Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on what parts should make up a background check bill.
On the surface, this seems like Washington dysfunction at its worst, especially since the percentage of Americans who want tougher gun control has stayed at its post-Newtown high: a majority still wants a ban on assault weapons, although legislation on that has pretty nearly no chance of passing through Congress. Over 80% of Americans do agree on universal background checks, including a majority of Republicans.
But a deeper look at the numbers suggests that gun rights advocates may be playing a stronger hand than at first glance.
1. Most Americans don’t see gun control as the most significant way to prevent mass shootings
Per a Public Religion Research Institute poll, only 25% of Americans believe that stricter gun control laws and enforcement would be the key to preventing massacres. That was second to mental health screenings, at 30%, and just ahead of moral and religious teaching, at 20%.
Even when we expand the issue out to allow for multiple answers, as CBS News did, only 21% think that stricter gun control would prevent gun violence by much. Almost half, 46%, think mental health screening would help a lot, while 36% think armed guards in public places would be most useful.
2. Guns as a whole are not at the forefront of issues for most Americans
Only 4% of Americans listed guns as the most important problem facing the country in the latest CBS News poll. Instead, over 50% chose the economy, jobs or the budget deficit. That matches other recent polling, and the recent focus on the sequestration illustrates this data.
You might say, “Of course, the economy is the No 1 issue for Americans – how could gun control come close?” And I’d agree: if gun control were really at the top of the heap, I’d expect it to be polling higher. During the healthcare debate of 2009-10, for instance, healthcare regularly broke the 20% barrier in polls on the most important issue in the US.
Now, it’s possible for Americans to care about more than one issue at once, but it’s fairly clear that gun control can get lost in our current mess of unemployment, budget cuts, and a stalling legislature. But gun control tends to be tied with healthcare and immigration as the most important issue, at all of 5%. Right now, healthcare isn’t even a national issue so much as a state one, in parts of the country.
3. Most Americans don’t feel gun legislation needs to be passed this year
This doesn’t come as a shocker given my last point, yet gun rights advocates have to like this number: only 46% of Americans in the latest Pew Research poll believe it is essential to pass gun legislation this year. That number includes only 42% of independents, and in fact, only 71% of Democrats who think that gun safety legislation is essential this year.
This is a key point because Republicans might fear being seen, once again, as “too rigid” and the “party of no”, as many Americans feel they are. But they can rest a little easier when it comes to guns. The American public seems to be saying that there’s nothing wrong with a delay.
4. Public opinion on gun control will eventually run out
If new gun laws aren’t passed this year, then they likely won’t be passed at all. Past history indicates that the current tide of opinion in favor of gun control will ebb over the course of the year. After Columbine, the only event in recent history with a comparable increase in favor of gun control, the high-water mark dropped after a year.
The reasons are twofold. First, the movement in favor of gun control has been driven mostly by media coverage. The media has yet to abandon stories about gun control, but time and a business imperative will eventually take their toll. Newer and more compelling news stories will fill the headlines, and most people will follow where the news coverage leads.
Second, the general movement over the past two decades has been against greater gun control. Take a look at the image above and take away the Sandy Hook spike. Prior to the Newtown shooting, the percentage of Americans in favor of stricter gun control had dropped below 50% – the first time that had ever happened.
Thus, from a game theory standpoint, I’m not exactly sure congressional members who want minimal gun control should rush into any deal. They have the numbers to stop any gun control measures in the Senate by filibuster, and they have a majority in the House. As importantly, if they look at the polling, they’ll know that they won’t face much of a penalty from the public: America isn’t exactly clamoring for tighter gun control and believes that other steps would do more to curb gun violence.
This is not to say a bill on background checks won’t pass through Congress. It’s just that the current hold-up should surprise no one; and despite the weight of current opinion, the pressure to make a law on guns probably won’t increase.