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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
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.