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The Political Perception and Reality of the Gun Rights Issue

Guns remain a mostly partisan topic in Washington, but the NRA is not the force that it used to be.

April 2, 2021
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Sean Gladwell/Getty

When Congress passed President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill — with an assault weapons ban as a key provision — the victorious Democrats were in no mood to launch skyrockets. The overall legislation was badly flawed, and the bill only survived a procedural challenge in the Senate after six Republicans broke party ranks to support gun control.

The Washington Post in an editorial on the crime bill decried the facile comparisons between legislating and making sausage as “grossly unfair to sausage makers.” But the Post did hail the assault weapons ban as “the first step toward a more rational national policy on the control of guns.”

Twenty-six years and hundreds of thousands of shooting deaths later, gun safety advocates are still waiting for that second step toward rationality. In fact, we are sadly back at square one since there were not enough votes in Congress to prevent the assault weapons ban from expiring in 2004.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 crime bill vote, Democratic strategists expressed cautious optimism that they had finally neutralized the “law and order” issue that Republicans had been flogging since Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in a front-page news analysis, “Clinton can rightly say that ... he succeeded in breaking a six-year jam in which gun control opponents on one side and death penalty opponents on the other had been able to block passage of any bill.”

That upbeat mood lasted until the 1994 elections brought Newt Gingrich to power as House speaker. “The NRA had a great [election] night,” Clinton wrote with obvious pain in his autobiography, My Life. “They beat both Speaker Tom Foley and Jack Brooks, two of the ablest members of Congress, who had warned me this would happen. Foley was the first Speaker to be defeated in more than a century.”

Thus, was born an Iron Law of American politics: Only those legislators with safe seats could ever dare cross the all-powerful National Rifle Association.

Stricter gun legislation has consistently won majority support in national surveys. The Gallup Poll has asked the same question for 20 years: “In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sales of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Gallup’s approach, which asks about attitudes rather than specific legislation, represents an ideal way to measure voter sentiment over time.

Aside from some dips during Barack Obama’s presidency, support for the “more strict” option has been consistently been over 50 percent since 2000. Typical is the most recent Gallup Poll on the subject, conducted about a month before the 2020 election. A strong 57 percent majority favored tougher laws, while only 9 percent wanted gun legislation to be even more porous. The other 34 percent supported the status quo.

Think of it: For more than a quarter century — through Columbine, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and now Atlanta and Boulder — the bulk of American voters have wanted tougher gun laws. Instead, what they got was inaction on the federal level and the excesses of open-carry in swing states like Michigan.

It is hard to think of any other issue on which majority rights have been thwarted for so long by the unyielding opposition of a single political party. Maybe civil rights before the 1960s might fit this bottled-up-for-decades model, but only if you consider Southern segregationist Democrats to have been a separate political party.

Abortion — another issue on which the GOP is in near total agreement in its opposition — may spring to mind. But national polling on abortion has long been murky with no point of view winning majority support. Instead, the public is roughly split into three camps: those who want abortion generally available, those who support further restrictions, and those who think that it should be illegal.

Yes, immigration reform has also been stymied for decades. But the issue is different from guns or even abortion because, until recently, this has not been a party-line question. Before Trump, key GOP senators like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham were in favor of immigration reform, as were pro-Republican business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

So what explains the transformation of the GOP into the party of lock-and-load Second Amendment fundamentalism?

The glib explanation has always been the unstoppable power of the NRA. But, increasingly, that single-factor theory makes less and less practical sense.

As a source of campaign cash, the NRA was always a bit player. In 2012, for example, more than $3 billion was spent on federal elections, plus untraceable “dark money.” By anteing up about $20 million, the NRA provided less than 1 percent of that total. Aside from a $55 million bet on Donald Trump in 2016, the NRA’s financial clout has so ebbed over the years that by 2018, the scandal-plagued, near-bankrupt organization was being outspent by anti-gun groups.

For decades, the NRA was also feared because of the supposed single-issue passions of its members. But the rise of Trump mobilized voters of all persuasions — and the potency of gun-rights extremists as a distinct voting bloc faded. Immediately after the 2020 election, the Monmouth University Polling Institute asked a national sample of adults about the biggest issue facing the incoming president. Only 1 percent of those polled mentioned guns — and that total included those on both sides of the issue.

What appears to have happened is that militant gun ownership has morphed from a stand-alone issue powerful enough to defeat a Democratic House speaker in 1994 to just one of a cluster of wedge issues that define the GOP in 2021. Judging from the coverage on Fox News and the angry statements by congressional Republicans, the Second Amendment is currently no more or less important than defending Dr. Seuss and battling transgender athletes.

If Clinton had to fight hard to win the support of six Republican senators in 1994 to pass the assault weapons ban, it seems like a daunting task to believe that any meaningful gun safety legislation would win the 10 GOP votes needed to break a filibuster today.

But, still, there is a glimmer of hope. With the NRA wounded and the Second Amendment downgraded to just another front in the never-ending culture war, there could be a moment when Republicans of good will finally realize that they have been cowering in the face of chimera. Because that’s all the gun lobby is today — a mythological beast feeding on political memories from the 1994 elections.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.