Opinions On Gun Control Are Massively Polarized. They Weren't Always.

Republican support for gun control plummeted during the Obama presidency.

Most Democrats think the United States is facing a dire gun violence problem that could be eased by passing stricter gun laws. Most Republicans think restrictions would be, at best, ineffective ― and barely more than a third consider gun violence a very serious problem at all.

That’s the state of the national conversation on gun control as the country gears up for yet another debate overshadowed by a historically catastrophic mass shooting.

Many individual policies, including instituting universal background checks and barring gun sales to people convicted of violent misdemeanors, remain widely popular across the aisle. But broader views about the problem of gun violence and its solutions are deeply divided along political lines.

In a June HuffPost/YouGov survey, Democrats were 45 points likelier than Republicans to consider gun violence a very serious problem, and 43 points likelier than Republicans to believe stricter gun laws would reduce the number of shootings in the U.S.

The divides along electoral lines were even steeper. Voters who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 were 60 points likelier than Donald Trump voters to think stricter gun laws would lead to fewer shootings, and 50 points likelier to see gun violence as very serious.

Other questions show a similar divide.

If last year’s election had been held solely among gun-owning households, Trump would have likely won every state but Vermont, according to data from SurveyMonkey. If it were held only among households without guns, Clinton would have likely prevailed everywhere besides West Virginia and Wyoming.

While Republicans have long been less supportive than Democrats of gun restrictions, they weren’t always so adamantly opposed.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, there was almost no partisan gap on whether gun buyers should have to obtain police-issued permits, according to General Social Survey data. 

GOP support for such policies, however, has been dropping ever since, with an especially steep dive after President Obama took office. That trend has continued to disintegrate ever since. Even on proposals that do still enjoy a strong bipartisan consensus, Republican support has slipped

“As recently as 2007, 48% of Republicans and GOP leaners said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 47% said it was more important to protect gun rights,” Pew Research director of political research Carroll Doherty wrote in 2015. “Since 2007, Republican attitudes have undergone a dramatic change: The share of Republicans saying it is more important to protect gun rights has increased by 28 points to 75%. By contrast, Democratic opinion has remained much more stable.” 

Some gun control advocates have taken issue with the framing of that question as implying that gun regulations constitute a de facto infringement on gun owners’ rights. The trend it shows, however, is clear.

Obama’s tenure as president touched off a wave of fears about sweeping gun restrictions, stoked by rhetoric from the NRA, that often seemed disproportionate to the reforms actually proposed by his administration. 

″[T]he notion that I or Hillary or Democrats or whoever you want to choose are hell-bent on taking away folks’ guns is just not true,” Obama said last summer, dismissing such talk as a conspiracy theory. “And I don’t care how many times the NRA says it. I’m about to leave office.”

But the belief was nonetheless widespread. Gun sales surged during Obama’s presidency, spiking especially after he called for new restrictions in the wake of tragedies like the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Sandy HookPolling found that a majority of gun owners feared that the federal government wanted to take away their right to own firearms.

During Obama’s presidency, even mentioning his name was enough to turn Republicans against otherwise popular gun restrictions. In a survey last year, 62 percent of Republicans asked about “requiring background checks for buying and selling guns, including at gun shows and private sales” favored the idea. Among another group asked to rate “President Obama’s plan” to require such background checks, support was just 42 percent.

President Trump’s victory seemingly put the brakes on gun sales. The partisan divide over guns, however, shows little sign of similarly dissipating.