Mario Cuomo, the late governor of New York, noted that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The lofty rhetoric before Election Day becomes a grinding effort to detail precisely how those goals will be accomplished. That’s a critique, in a way, but not an inaccurate one. It’s also overly generous. Candidates today — particularly recent successful presidential candidates — campaign in broad abstractions and, once elected, often avoid the details like the devil.
That indictment, though, sidesteps the fact that going from the abstract to the specific is hard. It’s hard in a direct sense: Finding a suitable compromise that can pass a legislative body and still meet the articulated rhetorical goal isn’t simple. But it’s also hard because it’s often easy to point out that some specific from a policy proposal runs counter to the lofty rhetoric it’s supposed to support. (Especially if that policy proposal was achieved through compromise.) In a political moment where compromise isn’t rewarded and partisan rigor is expected, that makes the already-hard process of legislating that much harder.
This, indirectly, is a key factor in the debate over gun legislation.
We’ve known for years that Americans broadly support universal background checks, an incremental change to federal policy that would, depending on the proposal, expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows.
That “depending on the proposal” is key. In Maine in 2016, even as the state supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, voters rejected a proposal that would have implemented such a system. The National Rifle Association opposed the move, of course, and criticism about the burden of implementation and that it might begin a slide to further restrictions was apparently effective. In theory, the move was popular. When presented with practical details, Maine passed. If you support background checks but oppose stricter gun laws, seeing background checks as a path to stricter gun laws could be influential.
But something seems to be shifting.
On Friday, NPR and its partner Ipsos released the results of a new poll showing that, since its last poll in October 2017, support for stricter gun laws had increased. This is clearly in part a function of the sustained public response to the shooting last month in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Increases in support for stricter gun laws have been seen across recent polling. CNN (and its polling partner SRSS), Quinnipiac University and CBS all hit or matched highs in support for stricter gun laws. In CNN’s case, the 70 percent support for stricter gun laws it measured was the highest since 1993 — at which point violent crime in the United States was at its peak.
What matters most politically, it seems, is support among Republicans. If formulating legislation gets gridlocked by being measured against the rhetoric acceptable to the political base, having the view of that base shift could be significant.
In the four most recent polls cited above, support for stricter gun laws has increased across the board, to varying degrees. In CNN’s polling, Republicans are 19 points more likely than in October to support stricter gun laws. In CBS’s, the shift was 14 points. In NPR’s, a more modest 4 points.
These differences are probably due largely to the wording of the questions. But in all four polls, a majority of respondents overall, Democrats and independents support stricter gun laws. In two, half or more of Republicans do, too.
Recent polling also shows support for specific legislative efforts. The CNN-SSRS poll found majorities supporting banning semi-automatic weapons (57 percent), banning high-capacity or extended ammunition magazines (63 percent), preventing convicted felons or people with mental health problems from owning guns (87 percent) and preventing people under the age of 21 from buying any type of gun (71 percent). Nearly half of Republicans supported banning high-capacity magazines. More than half supported an age limit and 9-in-10 backed prohibitions on selling firearms to those with mental health problems.
Sure, universal support for background checks hasn’t led to background check legislation. That’s due in no small part to the political mechanics of Congress and the idea among Republican elected officials that implementing stricter gun regulations will be strongly opposed by the most vocal part of their base. Holding up any law against that rhetoric is a political loser. The prose of a new law clashes with the poetry of fervent support for the Second Amendment.
These new polls suggest that for a lot of Americans, the polarized rhetoric of the gun debate is shifting. Imagine if more Maine voters heard that background checks might lead to more regulations on gun ownership and viewed that as a positive, not a negative. The results of the 2016 vote, already close, would probably have been different.
This article has been updated.