On Guns, Public Opinion and Public Policy Often Diverge

Polls show that public support for tighter guns laws is rising.

Alone, that doesn’t mean Congress is going to expand gun control anytime soon.

Public opinion and public policy on guns have seemed to be at odds for decades. Measures like universal background checks often attract the support of more than 90 percent of the American public, but overwhelming support has not translated into overwhelming victories for gun control measures when they’ve been put to public votes.

And in general, Republicans, many in safe rural districts or states, are relatively insulated from national political opinion on gun control, and on other issues that tend to break along urban-rural lines.

But in the aftermath of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump has expressed support for gun control measures that he previously rejected. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has signaled openness to a vote on gun legislation, including possibly a background check bill.

Advocates for restrictive gun laws have seized on strong public support as an explanation for this change of heart.

The mass shootings are probably a factor in the shift in the polls. Polling from Civiqs, an online public opinion firm, shows that support for new gun control laws tends to increase immediately after a high-profile shooting. The shift tends to subside in the weeks that follow, but generally leaves support for gun control laws higher than where it started.

More traditional polls have also shown increasing support for gun restrictions. Surveys from Gallup, Pew, Quinnipiac, ABC and NBC all show a modest recent rise in the share of Americans who say they believe controlling gun violence is more important than protecting gun rights or who say they favor more strict gun laws.

These more broadly worded polling questions show a public that is much more closely divided than on questions about specific policies, such as expanding background checks or limiting gun sales to people suspected of being terrorists. Pollsters say the broader questions tend to be better predictors of true public sentiment.

The president himself could be another factor. Historically, public opinion on guns — and other issues — tends to shift against the preferences of the party in power. Public support for gun control laws slipped when Barack Obama became president and has tended to increase since his exit from office.

But even in the Trump years, public support for new gun laws has generally remained beneath the levels of the George W. Bush years or the 1990s, when Congress passed an assault weapons ban. Polls over the coming weeks may show support for new gun laws reaching even higher levels, as they did after the high school shootings last year in Parkland, Fla.; for now, public opinion looks more the way it did during the Obama years, when gun legislation stalled.

Mr. Trump’s support for gun laws, should it endure, may be a larger factor than the small shifts in public support.

Polls repeatedly show overwhelming support for background checks on gun purchases. They are favored by Democrats and Republicans, and among Americans who own guns and those who don’t. But ballot measures proposing expanded background checks did not result in resounding victories in 2016 in two states that tend to vote Democratic, Maine and Nevada. The measure passed by less than a point in Nevada and failed in Maine, even among the voters who chose Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump on the same ballot. A “no” against background checks received more votes than Donald J. Trump did in both states.

The wide gap between national polls and the results of state ballot measures illustrates the challenge of measuring public opinion on specific issues. And the ability of gun activists to whittle down support for gun control in a heated political debate raises doubts about whether the polls reflect strongly held public demands for action, as activists suggest, or weakly held views that Republicans and their allies could change.

Democrats have faced the danger that gun owners were likelier to cast ballots based on the issue than the potentially larger group of Americans who support gun control but perhaps not as passionately. It has been a costly trade for Democrats in the relatively white rural areas where the party has traditionally counted on the support of working-class gun owners.

As recently as last year’s midterm elections, many Democratic candidates who tried — and often succeeded — to win white working-class Democratic areas, like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, played down the need for an assault weapons ban after Parkland. These Democratic concerns are far more pronounced than they were a decade ago.

House Democrats all but unanimously supported background checks earlier this year. And the 2018 midterms swept away many of the few remaining House Republicans who represent the metropolitan areas where opposition to gun control would most clearly work to the advantage of Democrats.

There are factors beyond the top line of public opinion polls that could give gun control advocates hope that this time might be different.

The most recent attacks pose new political risks to Republicans. The president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been decried as a contributing factor to the violence, which may give Republicans new reason to take action. And gun control activists argue that some of the most recent shootings could have been prevented by so-called red flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are found to be at risk of committing violence.

Mr. McConnell has signaled support for a vote on a federal red flag law, and several Republican senators have said they would vote for one.

The sheer number of mass shootings may have also changed some voters’ views on the issue, according to research by GQR, a Democratic polling firm. It found that more than a quarter of voters had shifted their views about guns in recent years, many citing the recent violence.

Anna Greenberg, a managing partner there, said she had also seen a shift in recent focus groups she had conducted. The type of gun owner who had traditionally been skeptical of gun laws because they might not be effective has been more open to policies with the potential for modest effects. “N.R.A. and gun-owning folks will talk about: ‘We have to do something. This isn’t O.K.,’” she said. “And that’s a real shift.”

The longtime assumption that pro-gun voters are more politically active, and likelier to vote on the issue, than anti-gun voters may not be quite as true as it used to be.

In the midterm elections, 8 percent of voters said that “gun policy” was the most important issue, and they voted for Democrats, 81 percent to 17 percent, according to the AP/Votecast survey.

Pro-gun groups were outspent in the midterms, a potential marker in the decline of the groups’ influence. The N.R.A.’s role in blocking gun legislation is often overstated, but it is a factor, and both its public support and financial stability have been declining.

As with many issues, attitudes about guns have become more polarized in recent years. In 2000, a Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats said that gun rights were more important than controlling gun ownership. In 2018, the Republican number had risen to 76 percent, while the number among Democrats stayed steady.

“It’s become much more partisan,” said Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research. “It’s not an isolated case, but it’s one of the most stark examples.”

The partisan nature of the issue could make Mr. Trump’s support more pivotal. If he supports legislation, it could make it easier for Republican lawmakers to support new controls on guns.

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