Sunday night’s mass shooting in Las Vegas will ignite another discussion about whether and which gun-control measures could prevent future tragedies. Invariably, these discussions will fall on partisan lines. Republican politicians will block any gun-control measures that Democratic politicians advocate.
It’s easy to assume that citizens are as polarized along party lines as members of Congress. This is actually not quite true. Here are four things you need to know about what Americans think about gun control across 28 years of data from the General Social Survey (GSS).
1. Partisanship isn’t always significantly related to support for gun control
Partisanship is perhaps the go-to explanation for attitudes about gun control. And this makes sense, as voters often do take cues from leaders within their party — and clearly those leaders are polarized. However, the apparent impact of partisanship is not consistent.
The GSS has measured support for requiring a police permit before purchasing a gun, requiring background checks for private gun sales, penalizing illegal gun sales more than illicit drug sales, limiting semiautomatics to the military and making it illegal to carry a firearm while drinking alcohol. The first question about police permits has appeared in almost every GSS survey while the other items appeared in just 2006.
Once you account for other factors — age, gender, race, education and whether someone owns a gun — partisanship is associated only with support for police permits.
2. Gun control is increasingly partisan, but many Republicans still support key forms of gun control
The growing rift between Democrats and Republicans is evident in the graph below.
Partisan differences emerged first after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 but increased during the Obama administration. This coincides with messages from the National Rifle Association suggesting that Obama would be particularly “anti-gun” and even “take your guns away.”
But this partisan polarization does not change a basic fact: Republicans generally favor gun-control legislation. Since 1972, a majority of Republicans have supported a law that would require a police permit for a gun purchase. The decline in support among Republicans shouldn’t mask the fact that many still support police permits.
This is true even when you look at subsets of Republicans. Based on my statistical modeling, even among men who own guns and identify as strong Republicans there is about a 50-50 chance of supporting police permits for gun purchases.
3. Most polarization on gun control is outside the South
C0nventional accounts of public opinion about gun control often traffic in generalization and even stereotypes. For example, we’re told that Southerners love guns, which allegedly makes Southerners more likely to elect pro-gun politicians.
That may be true in some ways, but these stereotypes also obscure important findings. For example, the changes after 1994 are actually most pronounced among Republicans in the Northeast. After 1994, support for gun control drops among Republicans in this region — as well as among Democrats in the South.
All of these findings are particularly interesting because the long-standing gun-control question in the GSS is subtly aggressive. It essentially asks whether state approval for a gun is necessary — and organizations like the NRA end to oppose precisely this kind of government action. Meanwhile, gun-control advocates focus on smaller-bore provisions, such as policies that target gun-show loopholes, terror watch lists, or military-style rifles.
Of course, there are many reasons majority support for gun control does not translate into congressional action. For one, the intensity of opinion, and the resulting political activism, favors gun-control opponents. This poses a challenge to gun-control supporters. One solution suggested by these data: link gun control to the police, generally one of the more trusted public institutions. If the police — not just “the government” in general — had to issue gun permits, that could prove more palatable to at least some Americans.
Steven V. Miller is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Clemson University.