The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Gun reform doesn’t happen because Americans don’t want it enough

A makeshift memorial is seen on Feb. 19, 2018, outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

The gun-reform bills the House passed last week are likely not going to pass the Senate. And even if they do, the president won’t sign them. And why not? Because people don’t care enough about gun regulation.

Of course, plenty of people support gun regulation. In fact, most people do. The vast majority of the U.S. public supports expanded background checks. And after the horrific shooting in Parkland, Fla., a little more than a year ago, support for stricter gun laws surged to close to 70 percent, including more than 50 percent of Republicans.

But rarely do Americans who support gun control make it their top priority — and this is especially true of people without strong party affiliation. Even when the issue surges to the forefront of public attention, it recedes quickly. By contrast, Americans who oppose gun control are intensely focused; so much so that for some of them, it’s a core part of their political identity. In a primary-driven electoral system such as ours, the latter group wins out every time.

This might be counterintuitive, considering the thousands of people who marched in Washington last year to demand action. By that standard, the response from the Republican-controlled government might have felt baffling. The marchers were met with months of nothing. No hearings in Congress. No legislation. No conversation.

But the Republicans knew what they were doing: By the time the blue wave broke through Congress in November, the public was no longer passionately invested in preventing gun violence. Recent polls suggest that public opinion on gun reform has already returned to pre-Parkland levels.

The result is what we saw last week: Democrats in the House, no longer afraid to tackle gun-control issues, passed two bills to expand and strengthen background checks. But those bills, even though solid majorities in both parties support strengthening background checks, attracted precious few Republican votes. Only eight voted to require that all gun sales run a background check, and only three voted to close a loophole that in 2015 allowed gunman Dylann Roof to slaughter nine people in Charleston, S.C. Both bills are likely dead on arrival in the Senate.

If there’s one thing that highly organized activist groups such as the gun rights crowd have learned, it’s that they don’t have to outwit the general public. They need only to outlast it.

A number of factors contribute to this dynamic. First, gun violence is so common that, horrifyingly, it’s become boring. It doesn’t matter that an estimated 100 Americans die every day from gun violence. The only time the public cares about guns is when enough people die at one time for it to be unusually shocking. That may be happening more frequently, but apparently, it’s still not frequent enough.

Second, it’s much harder to disrupt the status quo than to preserve it — even if the status quo is terrible. Plus, gun reform suffers from a two-front problem: If the proposed reforms are too small, gun rights advocates are likely to discredit them as insignificant and therefore not worth doing. But if a fix is too ambitious, gun rights supporters will decry them as an attempt by the government to take away their weapons.

Finally, and most important, the passion of gun rights activists never dissipates. Political scientists have long noted that there is a distinct political identity grounded in a hyped-up constitutional right to a firearm, so much so that people who adopt that identity see any restriction on gun ownership as an affront to their individual freedom. The people who adhere to this ideology have developed into a highly organized, highly motivated conservative base that reliably shows up in primary contests. Any Republican who crosses this crowd risks a challenge from the right who will accuse them of selling out their Second Amendment rights.

Ignoring that base often leads gun control activists to make a crucial political error. Instead of acknowledging that significant numbers of Americans are genuinely and deeply committed to opposing any restriction on access to guns, gun control advocates accuse Republican politicians of selling out to the National Rifle Association and ignoring public opinion. But the NRA spends relatively little in elections; in fact, it doesn’t even break the top 50 contributing organizations. In the 2018 midterms, pro-gun-control organizations actually outspent the NRA and other gun rights organizations.

It’s easy — and warranted — to fault cowardly Republican lawmakers who might want to pass gun control but don’t have the guts to actually follow through. But voters who care about gun control — especially moderate conservatives — have a role to play, too. Until they vote with the same unwavering intensity of their opponents, or unless Democrats have total control of government, the base for unregulated gun access will always be more powerful than the constituency for gun control.

Read more:

Peter King, James E. Clyburn, Joe Cunningham: This small, common-sense gun reform would save lives. Republicans should get behind it.

This is how we save lives from gun violence

The Post’s View: How many more young Americans have to die for gun laws to change?

Leah Libresco: I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.