Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).
Back in February, in The Chicago Tribune, Eric Zorn weighed in on the Parkland Shooting and its ramifications for the gun control debate. “Today, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, gun-control supporters are feeling energized, angry, and afraid, determined to make noise about this issue, to cast votes based on it, to donate, to protest, to volunteer,” he wrote. “Gun rights supporters feel this way pretty much all the time. That’s why they tend to win.”
After every horrifying mass shooting, pundits on both sides of the aisle seem to chime in with a similar refrain: nothing is going to change, because individuals who support unbridled access to guns are simply more passionate and organized than advocates for common-sense reform. “The NRA has built a movement that has convinced its followers that gun ownership is a way of life, central to one’s freedom and safety, that must be defended on a daily basis,” Politico’s Bill Scheer wrote in the days following the shooting. Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter suggested that “Perhaps because of [their] belief of guns as symbols of freedom and safety, gun owners are much more likely to be politically engaged on this issue.”
This narrative may have been true in the past, but there are reasons to be skeptical of it now. A recent Quinnipiac poll places support for stricter gun control among the general public at 66 - 31 percent, the highest since the organization began polling on the issue after Sandy Hook. Ordinarily cautious Democratic politicians, like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have made gun control a signature issue, with the latter garnering bi-partisan support for his SAFE Act legislation in New York. Democrats representing deep red states — like Joe Manchin, who sponsored a gun control amendment after the Sandy Hook shooting, and Doug Jones, who made gun control the subject of his first Senate speech — are coming out in favor of reform, and progressives like Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders, who used to play to play up pro-gun rhetoric, are rapidly moving in the opposite direction.
If anyone is trying to avoid the issue, it’s Republicans: Michigan congressman Mike Bishop, running for re-election in a district Trump won by 7 points, recently scrubbed his website of a sterling A+ rating from the NRA.
To find out whether such a mobilization gap actually exists, I consulted a wide range of surveys concerning America’s attitudes toward gun control, including the American National Election Studies and Cooperative Congressional Election Studies. Not surprisingly, the data revealed a different story: I found that gun owners and non-gun owners are equally mobilized around the issue, that Democrats are increasingly united on gun control, and that, judging from recent elections, backing common-sense reform doesn’t seem to be hurting Democrats at the ballot box.
Contrary to what the pundits are saying, whatever mobilization gap may have existed between gun control proponents and opponents, that gap would appear to be gone. Here’s why.
People who don’t own guns are just as mobilized around the gun debate as gun-owners
In 2016 the American National Election Studies (ANES) 2016 survey asked more than 5,000 respondents whether they considered the issue of gun access to be “extremely important,” “very important,” “somewhat important,” “not too important,” or “not important at all.” Interestingly, the survey revealed that gun owners (33 percent) were just as likely as non-gun owners (32 percent) to say the issue was “extremely important,” as the chart above shows. Moreover, the survey suggested little evidence for a partisan divide: Democrats (35 percent) and Republicans (33 percent) were roughly just as likely to rate the issue as extremely important.
ANES also asked respondents whether gun laws should make it easier or more difficult to obtain guns. Fifty-three percent of respondents said “easier,” 7 percent said “more difficult,” and 40 percent said “kept the same.” Examining interest and preferences at the same time, 18 percent of respondents favored more regulation and said the issue was “extremely important” to them, while only 3 percent of people who opposed gun regulations rated it as such.
Examining the results based on actual political behavior, and I found that gun owners and non-gun owners were just as likely to contact a federal politician at some point (10 percent), and that non-gun owners were slightly more likely to donate money to one (11 percent, versus 10 percent).
Democrats are uniting around gun control
In 2016, the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey asked around 13,000 respondents how important a series of policy issues were to them. Brian Schaffner, a co-principal investigator for the survey, provided me with exclusive data on the differential enthusiasm on gun control. Sixty percent of Democrats rated gun control as an issue of “very high importance,” compared with 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Independents. What’s more, 49 percent of those who supported an assault weapons ban said they viewed gun control as being of “very high importance,” compared with 38 percent of those who opposed it.
Over email, Schaffner stressed that it was important to exercise caution when considering these findings. “We have to be careful about how we understand these results, because asking about gun control is an inherently liberal framing of the issue, and that might be why we see fewer conservatives rating it as important,” he wrote. “Were we to ask about gun rights, we might see a reversal of these patterns.” However, the CCES data support findings in other survey data: there doesn't seem to be a huge enthusiasm gap, and what gap exists may actually favor Democrats.
Progressive political influencers view gun control as a priority
In December 2017, pollster Matt McDermott of Whitman Insights Strategies and I surveyed 435 progressive “political influencers,” whom we defined as people who had taken five or more political actions in the past six months, from signing a petition to writing an op-ed. We asked respondents to pick the three most important issues for them, and found that gun control was the fourth most frequently chosen as one of three top issues, following only single-payer healthcare, automatic voter registration, and restoring the Voting Rights Act.
Eight other issues, including college affordability, pay equity, green jobs, and investigating the abuses of the Trump administration, were cited less frequently than gun control. So as much as progressives want to impeach Trump (a lot), they want gun control more. Additionally, 85 percent of the influencers we surveyed said they “strongly support” comprehensive background checks, suggesting the party is mostly united around the issue.
The energy around gun control is already palpable in this year’s Democratic primaries. In California, Democratic primary candidate Gil Cisneros released a new ad attacking the NRA. In New Jersey's 2nd District, it’s threatening the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) preferred nominee Jeff Van Drew, who has an A+ rating from the NRA. He’s running against Tanzie Youngblood, a teacher who is leading grassroots campaign and who has met with pro-gun control groups like Moms Demand Action.
“I've always been an advocate of gun control because it has personally affected my family,” Youngblood told me, remembering a gun scare at her school. She criticized the inaction policymakers around the issue — “They're not the ones running from the bullet” — but said she’s noticed a shift in the Democratic party. “The base is for gun control and they're fired up about it,” she said.
Gun control isn’t hurting Democrats in the ballot box
Recent elections also call into question the idea of a mobilization gap. During last year’s November elections in Virginia, analyst William Jordan noted at the time, exit polls suggested that 52 percent of Virginia households own guns. But Democrat Ralph Northam won the gubernatorial race by nine points while openly advocating for gun control, garnering the support of 37 percent of voters in gun-owner households. Among the 17 percent of voters who said gun policy was their most important issue, he tied with Republican Ed Gillispie, at 49 percent.
Down-ballot, Democrat Chris Hurst, whose partner was killed on camera by a man with a gun, won a House of Delegates seat while running on a strong pro-gun control platform. To Hurst, to the extent that a mobilization gap can be said to exist, it's actually the gun-control side that is leading the way. “It's those who are advocating for practical gun violence prevention that are marching, protesting, calling representatives and organizing more events,” he said. “We're not seeing that from NRA members or supporters of more gun proliferation.”
Indeed, recent polling from Civiqs shows support for gun control 58 percent, compared with 35 percent opposing and the rest unsure, with a strong swing in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting and Parkland shooting. According to McDermott from Whitman Insights Strategies, it’s a trend we’re likely to see play out at the polls this year. “While gun policy is an issue that has more mobilized the conservative base previously, we are starting to see that Democratic base voters not only care about reducing gun violence, they're coming out to vote for candidates specifically on this issue." The public has changed its mind, the advocates have organized to drive change, and the politicians are responding. But the pundits haven’t kept up.