It happened after the Aurora shooting. It happened after Sandy Hook. It happened after the shooting in Charleston. And it’s happening now after the killing of five service members in Tennessee and two moviegoers in Louisiana. I’m referring, of course, to calls for stricter gun laws. According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans favor policies such as background checks, mental health restrictions, the creation of a federal gun database, and bans on assault-style weapons.
But despite calls for stricter gun laws, equally predictable is the fact that gun control isn’t likely to happen. It’s something of a paradox: Congress repeatedly fails to pass gun control despite mass support.
Political scientists have a number of explanations for why stricter gun laws are so difficult to pass even though surveys show support for specific gun measures.
At the macro level, there are big structural impediments to gun control in the current Congress. One is obvious to even casual political observers while the other is not so obvious.
First, the obvious reason. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the 114th Congress, stricter gun laws are unlikely to be enacted into law. Consider the fact that no gun control measures were passed in the previous 113th Congress after the Sandy Hook shooting. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, just four Republicans voted for the bipartisan amendment to require background checks on all commercial gun sales. It was the closest gun control came in that session of Congress. In the Republican-controlled House, while a gun measure did pass, the amendment actually weakened gun control.
A less obvious structural impediment to gun control is the Senate’s bias against large states. Among the Constitution’s many compromises, the decision to give states equal representation in the Senate (irrespective of population) was among the most significant.
Why does this matter for gun control? In establishing a “malapportioned” Senate, the Framers created an undemocratic body that gives disproportionate power to small, rural states. While it’s a simple feature, it has enormous implications. For example, research by political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer shows that small states receive more federal funding on a per capita basis than the large states. In the context of gun control, senators from rural states (even Democratic ones) are less likely to support gun control.
Consider Montana. With just over 1 million residents, Montana is about 1/40th the size of California. And because Montana and California have just two senators, Montana’s rural population is over represented in the Senate by the inverse proportion. But despite these differences, both states had two Democratic senators in the 113th Congress. Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester cast just four liberal votes on gun measures in the 113th Congress (on seven gun amendments, for a possible total of fourteen votes). California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer cast fourteen total liberal votes on gun measures.
So, even if Democrats controlled both chambers, there would still be a major structural impediment to stricter gun laws given the Senate’s bias in favor of rural interests. And I didn’t even mention the fact that in the modern Senate, almost everything requires 60 votes!
At the micro level, passing gun control requires the support of individual lawmakers. Understanding why lawmakers support (and oppose) gun control is a key piece of the puzzle.
Let’s begin with the most contentious topic: the NRA. Does the NRA cause lawmakers to vote against gun control? Some research says yes. Studies by Lipford (here) and Langbein and Lotwis (here) show that campaign contributions from the NRA indeed affect how members of Congress vote on gun legislation even after controlling for a lawmaker’s party affiliation and ideology.
However, there’s an important caveat. While the effect of the NRA is “significant” in these studies, the magnitude of this effect pales in comparison to the effects of ideology and party affiliation. Simply put, the NRA is unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether gun control passes or fails. Indeed, the NRA typically gives campaign contributions to conservative Republicans who already oppose gun control. Of course, this caveat needs a caveat: this does not dismiss the NRA’s importance. Rather, research suggests that the NRA’s greatest influences are electoral—helping to defeat lawmakers—or in the policymaking process—through it’s informational powers.
Another effect on how individual lawmakers vote is public opinion. In general, researchers have established a clear connection between what citizens want and how elected leaders vote. In the context of gun control, however, this general pattern raises major questions. As noted earlier, there is something of a “paradox” between mass support for stricter gun laws and the fact that individual lawmakers are unlikely to pass gun control.
A popular explanation for these contradictory conclusions is that proponents of stricter gun laws, while more numerous, are simply less enthusiastic about the issue than opponents of gun control. For example, the Pew Research Center survey cited earlier asked respondents whether they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with their position on gun control. According to the results:
Among those who prioritize gun rights, 41% say they would not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on gun policy, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. Fewer gun control supporters (31%) say gun policy is a make-or-break voting issue for them.
Simply put, from a lawmaker’s perspective, responsiveness to one’s constituents is not a function of what surveys reveal, but who is likely to write letters, give campaign donations, and vote (all of which are more likely among opponents of gun control according to the Pew Survey). In addition to this enthusiasm gap, while Americans support specific gun control policies—like background checks—people are generally lukewarm to the issue of “gun control” (see here and here).
As a whole, yes, gun control has widespread support when you ask Americans on a survey about specific policies like background checks, mental health restrictions, and bans on assault weapons. And it may seem like the public outcry in the wake of recent shootings in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana will compel Congress to act. Unfortunately for proponents of stricter gun laws, however, there are major institutional and individual-level obstacles in the way.