Can Democrats Make Real Progress On Gun Policy? Not From The Top Down.

Despite significant rallying by Democrats in both chambers just days after the deadliest mass shooting in the nation's history, The United States Congress adjourned last week without any new gun control measures. Even Sen. Christopher Murphy's (D-CT) fifteen-hour filibuster to push a budgetary amendment that would enhance background checks for all gun transactions fell short of legislative success. House Democrats consequently orchestrated a highly publicized sit-in to support the restriction of gun sales for those on the "no-fly" list, a measure that received bipartisan support in the Senate. Yet, as we've seen time after time, common sense gun legislation brought before Congress after a major mass shooting has yet again fallen short.

With most data indicating that mass shootings have been on the rise in the United States, there is very little ground to infer that we will not arrive at a similar point within the next year -- with a new host of families mourning the loss of loved ones, a nation holding vigils, and more calls for gun law reform. This has become a familiar pattern in our country and as has been pointed out by others, if Newtown didn't change the dynamic, it is hard to see what will.

What is frustrating for most people who do not buy into the "good guy with a gun" theory of safety, is that the vast majority of Americans support common sense solutions. Our recent national survey of 1,000 adults found that nine-in-ten Americans (90%) support increased backgrounds checks on individuals attempting to purchase a firearm. Further, over seven-out-of-ten Americans (72%) support a ban on assault rifles. With such unified support by the American public, why are we not enacting sweeping gun reform measures at the federal level?

The typical answer is to blame the National Rifle Association (the NRA). The NRA's "full support or we'll fund you out of office" mechanism is certainly effective for officials in strong Republican seats, and with the organization's expenditures surpassing $20 million in 2014 alone, they have the resources to do it. There are two main problems with this line of argument. First, most Republican voters do not agree with the NRA's position. Indeed, a vast majority of Republicans (88%) support stricter background checks in gun transactions and a majority (61%) favor the banning of semi-automatic assault rifles. Regardless of geographic location or age breakouts, support for both measures is similar across demographics. 

In fact, our research shows that support for either policy does not fall below a majority in even the most loyal Republican demographics, including white men (91% and 71%), self-proclaimed conservatives (85% and 61%), and early supporters of Donald Trump (88% and 54%). Support for tighter background checks in gun transactions did not fall below a majority level of support among any demographic, and the assault weapon bans only fell below 50% support with Ted Cruz (48%) and Ben Carson (45%) supporters. So with such concrete support, why do Democrats consistently fail to enact even moderate gun policy in wake of a national tragedy?

This question brings us to the second problem with the anti-NRA line of argument: it is the wrong argument. Of the Republicans in favor of more rigorous background checks, respondents were remarkably unified on how they reacted to their own Republican Congressman voting against their gun control ideology. The vast majority did not care. Or, at least, such an action would not inhibit them from supporting the Republican for office again over a Democrat. Only 17% of Republicans currently in support of expanding background checks for gun purchases stated that the issue could make-or-break their decision to support a candidate.

A closer look at the minority opinion yields even less exciting news for those trying to enact legislation at the federal level. The Republicans with the highest likelihood to vote out a GOP member over gun policy mostly describes Republicans living in blue districts, yielding virtually no impact at the federal level. Such figures spike particularly among Republicans in New England/the Mid Atlantic, and on the West Coast. These Republicans also tend to identify themselves ideologically as liberal or moderate, possess a college education, and they tended to supported Jeb Bush or John Kasich in the GOP Primary. They currently view Hillary Clinton favorably or Donald Trump unfavorably, and are intending to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump this November. To put it another way, these are Republican voters that would be the icing on the cake for incumbent Democrats, not voters who will make the difference in districts currently held by Republicans.

While the NRA might feel like a good foil, and polling shows their position is out-of-step with the vast majority of Americans, attacking them and pointing to how much a specific member has received from the organization is not a winning tactic. It is just speaking to the echo chamber. The data shows that if people want to change the ability to enact sensible gun laws, they will need to focus on shifting the culture around the gun debate. That being said, hope should not be lost for those who see gun control as an urgent and pressing need. While the fight might take longer than some might like, our data found spikes in support among Republicans in demographics that could lay the framework for a significant shift. Millennial Republicans are over twice as likely to boot out their incumbent over gun policy as older cohorts, and Republican voters who have children are also more likely vote against their party based on gun control measures than Republicans without children in their house. This clearly is not a majority of Republicans, but the future is more promising on this issue. If the argument for gun measures shifts away from the NRA and members being in the organization's pocket, it is easy to see how the timeline could be accelerated.

In Congress, the immediate legislative future for gun control remains murky at best, but if organizations interested in success shift their focus away from attacks on the NRA and more towards shaping the electorate's emotional trajectory, a change in dynamic might not be far off. Because at the end of the day, politicians like to get donations, but they need to get votes.