The recent deadly shooting at an Oregon community college, like so many before it, isn’t likely to lead to new federal laws designed to curb dangerous people’s access to guns. While this understandably frustrates supporters of gun safety legislation, there is reason for them to be hopeful. The National Rifle Association’s days of being a political powerhouse may be numbered.
Why? The answer is in the numbers.
Support for, and opposition to, gun control is closely associated with several demographic characteristics, including race, level of education and whether one lives in a city. Nearly all are trending forcefully against the NRA.
The core of the NRA’s support comes from white, rural and relatively less educated voters. This demographic is currently influential in politics but clearly on the wane. While the decline of white, rural, less educated Americans is generally well known, less often recognized is what this means for gun legislation.
Polls show that whites tend to favor gun rights over gun control by a significant margin (57 percent to 40 percent). Yet whites, who comprise 63 percent of the population today, won’t be in the majority for long. Racial minorities are soon to be a majority, and they are the nation’s strongest supporters of strict gun laws.
An overwhelming majority of African Americans say that gun control is more important than gun rights (72 percent to 24 percent). While the African American population shows signs of slow growth, other racial minority groups are growing more rapidly — and report even greater support for gun control.
The fastest-growing minority group in America is Latinos. Between 2000 and 2010, the nation’s Latino population grew by 43 percent. Hispanics, which make up 17 percent of the population today, are expected to grow to 30 percent of the population in the coming decades.
Gun control is extremely popular among Hispanics, with 75 percent favoring gun safety over gun rights.
Asian Americans also represent a growing anti-gun demographic. Although only about 5 percent of the population today, the Asian American population is predicted to triple over the next few decades. A recent poll of Asian American registered voters found that 80 percent supported stricter gun laws.
After the 2012 election, Republican officials said the party needed to do more to appeal to the growing population of racial minorities. Yet the party’s refusal to bend on gun legislation highlights the difficulty of such efforts. If the GOP compromises on guns to appeal to minorities, it might lose support among its core of white voters.
Rural Americans tend to oppose gun control, with 63 percent saying that gun rights are more important than gun control. The country, however, is becoming less rural and more urban. Recent years have witnessed a significant increase in the number of people living in cities, with big metropolitan areas experiencing double-digit growth.
This shift, like that on race, is a boon for gun control. Urban residents strongly prefer gun control to gun rights (60 percent to 38 percent), for reasons that aren’t hard to understand. When gun violence is on your television news every night and police are commonplace, people may come to view guns more as a threat than a savior.
Support for gun control is correlated, too, with levels of education. Gun rights are favored by a slim majority of those who attended only high school (50 percent to 47 percent). Among those with a college degree, however, 58 percent favor gun control, compared with 38 percent for gun rights. This demographic is also trending in a favorable direction for gun control advocates. Between 2002 and 2012, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 24 percent.
Other changes occurring in the United States further complicate matters for the nation’s leading gun rights organization. For years, the NRA focused on the interests of hunters and recreational shooters. As hunting declined precipitously after 1970 (when over 40 million Americans had hunting licenses, compared with 14 million today), the NRA’s justification for gun ownership shifted toward self-defense.
During the 1970s and ’80s, when crime rates were skyrocketing, the self-defense argument easily found an audience. Yet recent years have seen a drastic reduction in crime; today the crime rate is half of what it was in 1980. Given that this drop coincided with a serious economic downturn, which is usually a predictor of an increase in crime, it is not unreasonable to predict that crime rates aren’t likely to climb significantly anytime soon.
There is one demographic change that helps the NRA. Americans are aging, and older people tend to favor gun rights over gun control by a slim margin (48 percent to 47 percent). Yet these numbers aren’t radically different from young people (48 percent to 50 percent), so even an aging population won’t be nearly enough to counter the other, stronger demographic shifts.
Of course, the NRA will continue to fight, and fight hard, against gun control. But the heart of the organization’s power is the voters it can turn out to vote, and they are likely to decline in number. Unless the organization begins to soften its no-compromises stance on gun safety legislation, it’s likely to become increasingly marginalized in a changing America.