By Jordan M. Ragusa
In the days and weeks after any mass shooting, journalists, pundits, and other political observers often note a paradox on the issue of gun control. Namely, they lament the fact that most Americans want stricter gun laws, yet Congress fails to enact them. For example, according to Gallup data from 2016, 55% of Americans want guns laws to be “more strict” while just 10% say they want “less strict” gun laws. In the aftermath of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in U.S. history, this gap will almost certainly widen. Specific gun control policies—such as background checks, mental health restrictions, and bans on assault weapons—are popular with the public as well.
If we think lawmakers care about winning reelection, and are therefore responsive to the public’s wishes, the repeated failure of gun control in recent decades may seem difficult to comprehend. A few simple explanations exist, however.
Party politics is one such explanation. First, with the GOP controlling both chambers and the White House, gun control is unlikely in this Congress. It may seem odd looking back, but gun control was not a partisan domain in the decades following World War II. Yet like many issues, gun control developed into a partisan issue by the 1990s, with the passage of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 marking a critical juncture this evolution. Second, as the parties polarized over the same time span, the minority has come to increasingly exploit the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and thwart the majority’s efforts to enact legislation. Such an effect explains why gun control failed to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2013.
Yet the Senate is to blame in another way. Because the Framers created an equally apportioned Senate, where each state gets two senators irrespective of its population, small states have outsized power relative to the large states. Such an effect is easy to observe in federal spending data. As Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer note in Sizing up the Senate (University of Chicago Press, 1999) small states receive disproportionate federal funding on a per capita basis on items like transportation spending. In the context of gun control, because small states are also more rural on average, the interests of gun owners are overrepresented in the upper chamber (compared to non-owners, who are clustered in large states).
On the effect of public opinion—the crux of the gun control paradox—things get murky when you look beneath the surface. First, despite the Gallup data cited above, we would not expect lawmakers to respond to what all Americans express in public opinion polls. Rather, we’d expect lawmakers to respond to what voters and those who care most about the issue desire. On the issue of gun control, this favors gun owners, from whom gun control is more important compared to non-owners. As just one example, according to a Pew survey, gun owners report being much more likely to vote against a candidate who supports gun control compared to non-owners and candidates who oppose gun control. Second, Americans’ views on gun control are not as one-sided as they seem. While most citizens favor specific gun control polices, “gun control” is unpopular in the abstract. In this respect, it may be politically risky for a lawmaker to support background checks or mental health restrictions given that their opponent can label them a “gun control advocate” who “opposes the 2nd amendment.”
Lastly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is often blamed for the failure of gun control. Now, it is true that the NRA gives campaign contributions disproportionately to lawmakers who vote against gun control. But correlation is not causation, as social scientists like to say. An alternative is that the NRA gives to lawmakers who already support gun control. Moreover, the NRA’s true influence, like that of interest groups in general, is to aid lawmakers in drafting, introducing, and passing pro-second amendment statutes. Such a view is known in academic circles as “lobbying as legislative subsidy” and contrasts with the claim that interest groups simply “buy votes.” Less abstract is the fact that, while there is some evidence that NRA contributions affect votes on gun control legislation, that effect is small in comparison to other factors that explain a lawmaker’s roll-call behavior (party, ideology, and constituent opinions). Long story short, while the NRA is certainly an important player in the nation’s gun control policies, the “vote buying” claim is not accurate.
In conclusion, there are simple explanations for why gun control is a thorny issue. On the lack of stricter gun laws despite the public’s support for such measures, things are not as paradoxical as it may seem on the surface. Likewise, there are intuitive solutions for those who want stricter gun laws. First, Americans who want gun control need to start caring about the issue as much as gun-owners. At the extreme, they should refuse to vote for candidates who oppose common forms of gun control. In addition, those who want stricter gun laws need call and write their elected representatives and donate to gun control interest groups. Such an effort goes double for advocates of gun control in rural states. Lastly, Americans who support gun control need to keep the pressure on lawmakers throughout their two or six years in office. After all, there is a reason why opponents of gun control say “now is not the time” to politicize this issue; public support for gun control wanes in the weeks after a mass shooting.
Jordan M. Ragusa is an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston, where he directs the college's American Politics Research Team and is a research fellow in the Center for Public Choice and Market Process.