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What gun control advocates don’t understand about gun owners

Law enforcement officers search for the suspects in the San Bernardino, Calif. mass shooting on Dec. 2, 2015 (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

Soon after news broke on Wednesday that a gunman had opened fire on a social service center in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 people and wounding 17 others, the liberal Daily Kos website published an opinion piece under the headline "Your opinion on gun control doesn't matter." It crystallized much of the anger and frustration that gun-control advocates were expressing on social media in the wake of another American mass shooting.

"If you still bristle at the idea of gun control, fine," declared the author, Josie Duffy, an attorney who writes on criminal justice issues for the site. "All I'm asking is that you call a spade a spade. To you, the right to own a gun— including one of those assault weapons that looks like what a robot might utilize to kill the enemy in a movie called Robot War 3—is more important than people’s lives. People’s lives matter less than your gun."

This is a common - and increasingly exasperated - refrain from gun-control advocates. They see passing stricter gun laws as a common-sense response to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and they bristle at those who disagree.

Public polling suggests many of those advocates don't fully understand the motivations of their opponents: Supporting gun rights, for a large portion of Americans, is about much more than guns.

It's important to note that some tighter gun-control measures enjoy wide support across America, among liberals and conservatives, gun owners and even National Rifle Association-households as well as those who have never pulled a trigger. More than 4 in 5 Americans support requiring background checks for private and gun-show firearms sales, and nearly as many favor laws preventing people with mental illness from owning guns, Pew Research surveys have found. Seven in 10 support a federal database of gun sales. Over half support bans on semi-automatic and assault weapons.

The BBC is so clearly tired and fed up with gun violence in America

More broadly, though, defending gun rights is a more popular position now than it has been in almost 20 years. Half of Americans now says it is more important to "protect the right of Americans to own guns" than it is to "control gun ownership."

Several forces are shaping that growing support. They include:

1. A backlash against government intrusion in individuals' lives.

This connection was borne out clearly in a large 2012 survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. Respondents were asked whether they support stricter gun control laws as well as whether they agreed with the statement “government controls too much of our daily lives.”

The correlation was stark – among those who strongly agreed government had too much control, 70 percent opposed stricter gun control laws. That opposition dropped to 45 percent among those who only “somewhat agreed” government had too much control and only 24 percent among those who strongly disagreed government was too controlling.

That connection isn't simply an artifact of partisanship or ideology -- even among Republicans (more on partisanship in a minute) and Republican-leaning independents, those who "strongly agreed" government is too controlling were 30 percentage points more likely to oppose new gun restrictions if they agreed with the "government controls too much" statement than if they disagreed.

Worries about gun laws breeding government intrusion aren't confined to gun owners, by the way. A 2013 Pew poll found that 57 percent of all adults -- and 49 percent of adults who have no guns in their household -- "agree" that stricter gun laws would give "too much power to government over average citizens." While agree-disagree survey questions can inflate support for an idea, the result suggests this argument is broadly acceptable.

2. A belief that more guns make us safer.

Americans doubt the effectiveness of gun laws, with 60 percent in a June CNN/ORC poll saying they stricter gun control laws would not reduce the number gun-related deaths.

Guns themselves are also seen doing as much to protect people as put their safety at risk, with 54 percent in the previously mentioned Pew survey this summer saying they do more to protect people from becoming victims. That sentiment has increased in the years following the deadly 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn.

3. The rise of gun laws as a partisan issue.

From 1993 through 2007, Pew documented a steady gap between Republicans and Democrats on the importance of gun rights versus gun control. Republicans tended to split about 50-50, and Democrats tended to break two-thirds in favor of gun control. That trend broke, and broke hard, after Barack Obama was elected president.

Since 2008, Republican preference for protecting gun rights has risen to 75 percent. Democratic preferences have stayed basically level. The surge in support for gun rights in recent years, in other words, is entirely explained by the changing views of Republicans. In a statistical regression analysis predicting opposition to gun-control measures in the 2012 Post-Kaiser poll, gun ownership, partisanship and ideology emerge as the best predictors.

"Can we stop looking at gun rights as an ideological issue?" Duffy asks, in the first line of her Daily Kos piece. "This is no longer ideological."

Polls are telling us that it is.