The political script following the recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta feels all too familiar. Democrats, led by President Joe Biden, want Congress to pass gun control legislation, most notably universal background checks, while Republicans are balking.
The motions are so familiar that I wrote an article three years ago, explaining why Republicans were unlikely to change their minds and why there was little backlash to them opposing a measure that some polls indicate is supported by more than 80% of Americans.
While the party of the president is different now, a look at the polling and election results shows us why it’s still unlikely that Democrats will be able to convince enough Senate Republicans to break through a filibuster for universal background checks.
1. Americans don’t think Democrats reflect their views on guns
If the public was that upset with the GOP’s stance on guns, then they’d trust Democrats more to deal with gun policy.
A Pew Research Center poll last year didn’t show that was the case. Instead, 46% of respondents actually said the Republican Party reflected their views on gun policy, while 42% said Democrats reflected it better.
To be clear, these numbers are close, and no party has a consistent edge on the issue over the last decade. Still, it’s inconsistent with the belief that the public stands behind Democrats on guns.
2. Stricter gun control broadly isn’t all that popular
Earlier this year, Gallup asked Americans whether they were satisfied with current gun laws, and, if they were dissatisfied, whether they wanted stricter or less strict gun laws.
Just 41% were dissatisfied and wanted stricter gun laws. A plurality (50%) were either satisfied (42%) or dissatisfied and wanted looser gun laws (8%). The percentages on this question from Gallup have been relatively steady over the last two decades.
Now, I will say the polling on these broader questions can be conflicting. A 2020 Gallup question, which was phrased slightly differently, discovered that 57% wanted stricter gun control, 34% wanted laws kept the way they are now and 9% wanted less strict gun control.
We can’t be sure why these two similar but different questions came up with fairly different results. At a minimum, it shows how gun opinion isn’t as tightly held as you might believe.
It also seems likely that some who may support more gun control measures are largely satisfied with our country’s gun laws and don’t feel strongly about the issue.
3. Passion remains on anti-gun control side
The people for whom gun control was a big issue in the 2020 election were more likely to favor the Republican presidential ticket.
According to Ipsos polling from the fall of 2020, voters who listed gun control as a top three problem favored Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by about a 20-point margin. This is fairly in-line with Pew polling from earlier in the cycle in which Trump voters were 10 points more likely to say gun policy was very important to their vote than Biden voters.
The fact that the passion was on the anti-gun control side is something we’ve seen in the polling almost every year. With a few exceptions, those who favor looser gun control are more willing to vote on the issue and more likely to spend time on the cause than those who are in favor of stronger gun control.
4. Background check ballot measures don’t consistently outperform the Democratic baseline
When individual measures for gun control are actually on the ballot, they often perform far closer to an issue in which people hew slightly more to the right than the Republican baseline in a state.
Over the past five years, ballot measures for background checks of different types (sometimes matched with other measures) have appeared on ballots in California, Maine, Nevada and Washington.
In all four cases, the pro-gun control side’s margin was worse in the state than the Democratic baseline in the state in a given year (i.e., Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016 and the House Democrats’ margin in 2018). In 2016, Clinton won California by 30 points, while gun control won by 27 points. In Maine, Clinton won by 3 points, while gun control lost by 4 points. In Nevada, Clinton won by 2 points, while gun control passed by a single point. Lastly, Washington passed its gun control law by a little less than 19 points in 2018, but House Democratic candidates in Washington won by more than that the same year.
You have to go back to Washington in 2014 for a background check ballot measure that did better than the Democratic baseline in that year in that state. In that case, the yes to the background check still got less than 60% of the vote – far less than you might expect in a blue state when background checks nationally poll at greater than 80%.
The bottom line is that Republicans have no reason to change their tune on gun control based on polling and election results. Unless something dramatic changes, we’re likely looking at the same no action on gun control from Congressional Republicans.