But those two facts don’t guarantee that the issue will play any differently this year than in the past, even though Democrats, some columnists and gun-control advocates insist the Orlando shooting changed things.
After all, previous promises that voters would turn against opponents of “reasonable” gun-control legislation turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking by those who favor additional restrictions on gun purchasers.
Supporters of additional legislation, who are understandably frustrated by Congress’s inaction, promise to become more vocal and cite polls showing public support for an assault-weapons ban and for outlawing gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list.
But other polls have shown the country divided on further restrictions on gun ownership, and national polls are meaningless. The public’s division on the subject — Democratic congressional districts and states generally favor more restrictions, while Republican districts and states don’t — inevitably limits action on the issue.
Ultimately, the importance of guns as an electoral issue rests on the answers to two related questions: Will more voters this year use an incumbent’s record on gun-control legislation to decide how to vote in November? And will those voters who place a greater importance on limiting guns make a difference in the outcomes of individual elections?
The answer to both questions is, in the overwhelming number of cases, no.
Most voters don’t look to candidates’ issue positions to decide how to cast their votes. Overwhelmingly, they look to party, in part because both parties have now adopted a fairly consistent set of positions on the issues of the day, whether on social policy, taxes and spending, or national defense.
Those voters who do look beyond party have a long list of issues to consider — abortion, religious freedom, equal pay, trade policy, health care, the environment, taxes, gay rights, government regulation, Israel, national security, homeland security, ethics in government, voting rights, the cost of college, the Supreme Court, National Institutes of Health funding, fracking, the deficit and, yes, gun-owner rights/gun control.
Few feel so strongly about a single issue that it alone determines their vote. Most voters consider a number of issues and candidate qualities, and those who do seem to be single-issue voters on guns tend to be on the gun-owners’-rights side of the argument.
Last year, President Obama urged gun-control voters to become “single-issue voters,” saying that even if an elected official is “great on other stuff, you’ve got to vote against them if they are wrong on gun control.”
Of course, Obama knows that most members of Congress who hold his views on gun control are with him on other issues as well, so he really wasn’t elevating guns above all other issues. Does anyone really think that he would have traded the Affordable Care Act for new gun-control legislation?
Even if Democratic candidates, journalists and TV talking heads talk about guns and gun control every day from now to November — and even if House Democrats stage similar protests — it is very unlikely that those things will make gun control any more decisive an issue than it has been.
There is yet another reason to be skeptical that guns will be decisive in November’s elections: Republican lawmakers from swing states and districts will find a way to neutralize the issue and to make it difficult for Democrats to draw a sharp contrast.
Although Sen. Susan Collins’s compromise bill to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists appears to be going nowhere, seven Republican senators joined Collins (R-Maine) in voting last month to support the legislation on a procedural vote. The group included Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), three endangered Republicans facing voters in November.
Meanwhile, two other endangered GOP senators, Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), backed a proposal to “deny a gun sale to a known or suspected terrorist, but only if prosecutors could convince a judge within three days that the would-be buyer was involved in terrorism.”
Those who think Republican measures aren’t strong enough certainly are free to criticize the Republican senators or blame the entire party for congressional inaction. But after voting for some action to stop terrorists from buying guns, those Republican officeholders now have a weapon they can use to rebut Democratic campaign attacks, and their votes could be enough to divert voters to other issues or factors in deciding how to vote in the fall.
Indeed, Rep. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), a Republican who represents a swing district on the eastern end of Long Island, sent out a statement Friday criticizing “House Democratic Opposition to Counter-Terrorism Bill That Would Prevent Terrorists from Purchasing Firearms.”
Of course, the impact (or lack of impact) of guns ultimately will depend on developments between now and Nov. 8. Some events could make guns a more salient issue, while others would make it less of a vote cue for swing voters.
Attitudes toward gun control and gun owners’ rights continue to divide the country, as they have for years. Some Democrats have decided that they can turn the 2016 elections into a referendum on denying terrorists guns. They probably are wrong — just as they were when they insisted that the 2014 midterm elections would be about how Republicans shut down the government.