Republican primary aside, NRA may be losing its grip on the public’s imagination

November 2, 2015
Street artist Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York

Street artist Mark Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York, June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Public opinion on guns seems to be going in the same direction as it did on same-sex marriage. The religious right lost the fight against same-sex marriage. The gun lobby may lose the fight to stop reasonable gun-control laws.

Over the past 10 years, the United States has seen a complete reversal of public opinion on same-sex marriage — from opposition to support. This month, a Gallup poll press release was headlined, “Americans’ Desire for Stricter Gun Laws Up Sharply.”

The turning point on guns came in 2013, when the Senate filibustered a bill that would have closed the “gun show loophole” and mandated background checks for all gun purchases. About 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks. After the Senate bill failed, public support for stricter gun laws shot up to 58 percent from 44 percent a year earlier.

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A box of cupcakes topped with icons of same-sex couples at City Hall in San Francisco, June 29, 2013. . REUTERS/Stephen Lam

In the case of same-sex marriage, the shift of opinion was driven by personal experience. More and more Americans say they know someone — a relative, a friend, a coworker — who is openly gay. The shift on guns is being driven by mounting outrage over the country’s inability to keep guns out of the hands of deranged individuals.

“The political calculus has changed,” said the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a lobbying group.

Six states have passed background check legislation since 26 people, including 20 small children, were killed by a gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. One passed in Washington state last year by popular vote. In New Jersey recently, the state Senate, for the first time, mustered enough votes to override a veto by Republican Governor Chris Christie. The vote upheld a New Jersey law requiring that the courts be notified of any request to expunge mental-health records of people attempting to acquire a gun.

Family members look at hand guns at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas

Family members look at hand guns at the George R. Brown Convention Center, at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas, May 4, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

State laws won’t mean much, however, as long as people can purchase guns in one state and take them across state lines. Advocates of stronger gun controls are hoping the momentum is building for action in Washington, just as it did in the case of same-sex marriage.

But the two issues are different. The ultimate victory for same sex-marriage came when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. A same-sex marriage law never had to be passed by Congress.

Getting a gun law through Congress is difficult because of single-issue voting by gun-rights supporters. If you are a legislator and you know that a majority of your constituents favor a new gun law, you also know that it would be risky to support such a law. Why? Because you would lose votes from the minority who would vote against you for that reason alone. They would likely outnumber those who would come out to support you for that reason alone. Most people who favor gun laws don’t care so intensely about the issue that it drives their votes.

President Barack Obama is trying to change that.

Following the shootings on a college campus in Roseburg, Oregon, this month, the president urged people who want to see stronger gun laws to become single-issue voters. “Here’s what you need to do,” Obama said at a press conference. “You have to make sure that anybody that you are voting for is on the right side of this issue.” And if they oppose new gun laws? “Even if they’re great on other stuff, you’ve got to vote against them.”

In other words, let the gun issue drive your vote.

A demonstrator holds a sign touting an assault rifle during the Guns Across America pro-gun rally at the State Capitol in Olympia Washington

A demonstrator holds a sign touting an assault rifle during the Guns Across America pro-gun rally at the State Capitol in Olympia, Washington, January 19, 2013. REUTERS/Matt Mills McKnight

Gun-rights activists do that all the time. They make sure legislators know they will be punished if they vote for new gun laws. For supporters of gun control, however, guns are not usually the sole voting issue.

In fact, Obama quickly undermined his own appeal when he compared gun laws to the conservative effort to shut down the federal government unless Planned Parenthood is defunded. “You can’t have an issue like that potentially wreck the entire U.S. economy, any more than I should hold the entire U.S. budget hostage to my desire to do something about gun violence,” Obama said. “That would be irresponsible of me.”

The problem is that gun-rights activists, like many anti-abortion activists, don’t care about being “irresponsible.”

Things may be changing, however. Most of the gun lobby’s power is over Republican legislators in one-party districts, where they can punish waverers in low-turnout primaries. Democrats are not so easily intimidated, particularly if, as is increasingly the case, they represent strongly Democratic constituencies.

More broadly, the gun issue has become a clear demarcation between the New America coalition that defines the Democratic Party today — minorities, working women, young people, educated professionals — and the Old America that defines the Republicans. The New America constituencies are growing. The Old America is not.

Moreover, the Republican Party is tearing itself apart, while the Democratic Party is coming together around stronger gun regulation, as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has found out. This is one key area where she outflanks her strongest opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). She has declared war on the National Rifle Association. “This has gone on too long,” Clinton said at the CNN debate. “It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”

The public consensus on guns is changing. It’s not happening as fast as it did on same-sex marriage. But it is happening. And Democrats, who feel increasingly safe from gun lobby threats, are ready to act.

In the past, opponents of stricter gun laws could peel off a few Democrats who got elected in rural and conservative areas. There are not many of those Democrats left. Now supporters of stricter gun laws are finding they can peel off Republicans whose suburban constituents are increasingly horrified by gun violence.

12 comments

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One slur after another, with a bit of legislation-by-judiciary in the middle.

Posted by Het_Russ | Report as abusive

Just another article encouraging more damage be done to America. Those who do, do. Those who can’t, teach. Scary.

Posted by murraycat | Report as abusive

Wow. At least you’re right about one thing. Anti-2nd Amendment activists certainly have an imagination. The Gallup poll referenced in your article refers to the results from only one question that supports your viewpoint, but entirely ignores the fact that support for gun ownership, and opposition to gun bans have gone up significantly, according to their own polls.

Go ahead and continue to use your imagination; I prefer to look at the facts.

Posted by DoctorJenks | Report as abusive

Yes, the Democratic party is coming together. That’s how they lost both Congress and Senate majorities as well as most governorships.

This article is mostly wishful thinking and patting self on the back. Good going.

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

Yes of course the American population is moving to more restrictions like jailing gay couples and harder penalties for smoking the “evil weed”. Perhaps the NRA has lost most of its power and control but to really think that the populous would agree to more legal restrictions for gun owners like banning evil metal lugs on rifles to kill innocent Americans in drive by knifings? Thousands of Americans died from 1862 to 1865 from these evil rifle knives and now thousands more can be save too by banning these evil metal lugs. Yes that’s true commonsense right there.

Posted by Pyrosis22 | Report as abusive

‘The problem is that gun-rights activists, like many anti-abortion activists, don’t care about being “irresponsible.”’ Sounds like he’s losing his grip on his own imagination.

Posted by OdysseusMTanner | Report as abusive

I’d like to see a more neutral position by Reuters than this. That’s what Reuter’s is best known for, its lack of bias.

Posted by tektypes | Report as abusive

Who is this reporter to tell us how to think and where are his statistics for his allegations?

Posted by bsk1ag | Report as abusive

If the NRA was serious about the 2nd Amendment, they would advocate for their members to have the same weapons as the government. If you think “Arms” means crappy handguns and low-caliber semi-automatics (lower grade weapons than the average dirtbag mexican drug cartel)…. keep thinking that. Meanwhile, the Saudis are getting the good arms in arms sales. And the NRA is laughing all the way to the bank with your silly annual dues. Handguns are sugar pill for hill billies. You people don’t stand a chance against tyranny.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“The gun lobby may lose the fight to stop reasonable gun-control laws.”
That is the point. What are reasonable gun-control laws? The NRA and gun enthusiasts, often called 2nd Amendment Protectionists, are for “reasonable” laws. As is so often the case in these debates the true story is lost in hyperbole and obfuscation with terminology.

Posted by RudyB | Report as abusive

Any time you have a law that says “well-regulated” and “shall not be infringed” in the same sentence… you have a poorly written law. The good thing is, our Constitution was built for edits. Time to update the 2nd Amendment with clarifications so we can arguing about its meaning on the internet.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Blah Blah Blah….I see words, but read nothing! Also, nice opportunistic photo showing a kid holding a gun. Nice agenda libbie….

Posted by CZowner | Report as abusive