Like a director yelling “action,” the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend cued all the same political actors to repeat all the same political lines. Conservatives offered their prayers and talked about mental health and video games; progressives decried inaction in Washington. Voters could be forgiven for assuming they have seen this play before and nothing will ever change. But this is wrong.
America’s relationship with guns is changing, and people, more than ever, want someone to “do something.” These new attitudes will transcend the red/blue divide and provide a litmus test of our political leaders’ values. Republicans increasingly understand that they are on the wrong side of history and risk political ruin in the suburbs if they do not find a way to distance themselves from perceived complacency.
It hasn’t always been this way. After losing the 2000 presidential election, Democrats took stock. They looked at states like West Virginia, Ohio and Missouri and grew concerned about a growing cultural disconnect between the party and the people in the interior of the country. Democrats made a tactical decision to walk away from “gun control.” In 2004, the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire without protest from congressional Democrats. The party recruited pro-gun candidates to run in rural districts in the 2006 midterms. Barack Obama did not make gun control a major theme in either of his national campaigns. After Sandy Hook, Obama introduced executive orders addressing guns and championed Manchin-Toomey, a bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks, but it was defeated by Senate Republicans and a handful of Senate Democrats representing red states.
Today, the Democratic presidential candidates have made reducing gun violence a major campaign issue. They all embrace some kind of ban on assault weapons, and some proposals are bold, such as Cory Booker’s plan for federal licensing and Joe Biden’s national buy-back program. Rep. Eric Swalwell made guns his central and defining issue before he dropped out last month. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a former National Rifle Association member, felt compelled, after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, to donate $20,000 he had received in NRA political contributions to gun violence prevention groups. The new Democratic House passed a bill in February requiring a background check on every firearm sale that would represent the most significant gun legislation since 1994, if passed by the Senate. In the face of inaction in Washington and a hostile Supreme Court, a revitalized gun-control movement (including groups like Giffords, Moms Demand Action and Everytown) and political leaders have pushed for legislation at the state level and have passed ballot initiatives with gun restrictions in states across the nation.
Democrats and advocates are not simply appealing to a progressive base but are reflecting a profound change in America’s relationship with guns.
While there is some dispute about the numbers, both the General Social Survey and the Pew Research Center report a decline in gun ownership in this country. As important, these guns are concentrated in fewer hands. While Americans own more than 260 million civilian guns, according to a 2015 Harvard and Northeastern University study, 3 percent of the population owns half of those guns. This reflects the decline of hunting as a sport and cultural pastime, as the country comes less rural and the population more diverse. Now a narrower group of people owns guns, and they are more likely to say they have them for self-protection (60 percent cite personal safety vs. 36 percent who hunt, according to a 2013 Gallup poll).
At the same time, voters’ views on this issue are changing. Even before the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Gallup recorded the highest level of support for stricter gun laws in 25 years. The share of voters very dissatisfied with the nation’s gun laws has nearly doubled from 2008 (21 percent) to 2019 (40 percent). While the NRA tears itself apart over accusations of mismanagement and questions about its strategy, national polling shows that the organization gets net-negative ratings for the first time in two decades. In a recent GQR survey of 2,000 likely 2020 voters, more than 1 in 4 say their views on guns have changed within the past five years. This number includes 1 in 3 Democrats, but also 1 in 4 independents and 1 in 5 Republicans. Among these voters, 78 percent — and 70 percent of Republicans — have moved toward supporting stronger gun laws.
The primary reasons for this change: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Orlando, Las Vegas, Aurora, Columbine, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Charleston, and now El Paso and Dayton. In our survey, we asked those whose views on guns are evolving to describe what specifically changed their minds. Among voters moving toward stronger gun laws, 55 percent volunteered either mass shootings or school shootings, and 16 percent talked about easy access to guns.
American voters now broadly support efforts to reduce gun violence. A May Quinnipiac poll found that 94 percent of voters favored universal background checks. A strong majority also favor an assault weapon ban: In the GQR survey, a 65 percent majority backed a ban on assault weapons, including 52 percent of Republicans and a 55 percent in gun-owning households. Earlier in the decade, surveys tracked support in the low to mid 50s, but now most survey show support above 60 percent. Importantly, a 65 percent majority also believed that mass shootings are often caused by easy access to assault weapons. An even more impressive 72 percent supported a buyback program for assault weapons, like the one instituted in Australia after a 1996 mass shooting there.
Gun control has real political traction. Gallup shows that the share of voters who count the issue as a major factor in their electoral decision-making is increasing. In the GQR survey, 19 percent listed “reducing gun violence” as one of the most important issues facing the country, below health care (33 percent) and immigration (28 percent), but essentially tied with the economy and jobs (21 percent) and keeping taxes and spending down (20 percent). Among African Americans, this is the second most important issue, behind only reducing the cost of health care. It’s even more intense among younger people, whose turnout increased dramatically in the 2018 mid-term elections. A Harvard Institute of Politics study showed that concerns about school shootings, health care and gun violence were the first, second and third issues most correlated with the likelihood of voting. (Conversely, a 2014 Quinnipiac survey showed just 3 percent identifying gun policy as one of their most important issues.)
Despite these changes, there is still a real and visceral attachment to gun ownership. Not surprisingly, since more people own guns for “protection,” nearly 60 percent in the GQR survey said having a gun makes you safer. Gallup research suggests this is a reversal from the past, when a majority of people thought having a gun in the house made it a more dangerous place. People also have doubts about the effectiveness of restrictions on guns. In the GQR survey, for example, 83 percent believed that criminals will get guns regardless of what the law says.
Still, people seem comfortable with these tensions, as 84 percent also said that while no law can prevent all mass shootings, “we can make them less frequent.” As we have heard in focus groups, including among gun owners, people just want to “do something,” even if it doesn’t completely solve the problem. They do not want mass shootings to be America’s “new normal.” The fact that people support stronger gun laws — even if some criminals continue to obtain guns and no law can stop all mass shootings — is a critical advance for this movement.
Advocates of reducing gun violence still face political obstacles. When Democrats retreated from the issue after the 2000 election, the gun lobby did not regard that as a truce. It exploited a largely uncontested field to advance its positions, and guns became deeply tied to the views of the GOP base. Rural red states have huge power in the Senate to prevent meaningful change (Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tweet calling for “bipartisan, bicameral” efforts rings hollow), and President Trump, in his remarks to the nation after El Paso and Dayton, did not support any new restrictions on access to guns.
Still, the cracks are showing. After the Parkland shooting last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed legislation that raised the age for gun purchases and instituted a three-day waiting period (which the NRA immediately challenged in court). This past week, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio proposed a 17-point plan to reduce gun violence, including universal background checks, protective orders to take firearms away from potentially dangerous individuals and increased penalties on a range of illegal gun activities. Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican who represents Dayton in Congress and has a 93 percent rating from the NRA, called Tuesday for an assault weapons ban. “The carnage these military style weapons are able to produce when available to the wrong people is intolerable,” he said in a statement. “ … This tragedy must become a catalyst for a broader national conversation about what we can do to stop these mass shootings.”
For the people used to offering them, thoughts and prayers are no longer enough.