Politicians diverge from voters when it comes to preventing gun deaths.
The massacre of children at an elementary school in Texas is adding fresh urgency to the conversation about gun control in the United States, which has been politically fraught and lacking in progress. That’s not because of a lack of support for gun control. That support just needs a little bit of parsing.
To be clear: Americans’ views about guns are complicated, and vary significantly by political party and geography. Overall, the vast majority of Americans support the right for private citizens to own guns, and more than 40 percent of households own at least one firearm. That doesn’t mean they’re against tighter rules on their guns. Nearly three-quarters of Americans think that gun violence is a big or moderately big problem, according to a survey last year by Pew Research Center. And a majority of Americans think that the epidemic of school shootings could be stopped with drastic changes in legislation, according to a poll this week by YouGov.
Still, when Americans are asked broadly if they support stricter gun laws, their opinions volley back and forth, and it’s hard to see a consistent majority. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of Americans in a Gallup poll last year said laws regarding firearms sales should be stricter — a number that has actually gone down in recent years — and a Quinnipiac poll last year found that just under half (45 percent) support stricter gun laws. More recently, a Politico/Morning Consult poll last week found that 59 percent of registered voters think it’s very important (41 percent) or somewhat important (18 percent) for lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws.
But these might not be the right things for pollsters to be asking. That’s because of how drastically existing gun laws vary state by state.
“The thing about those sort of generic questions: Somebody in Vermont can say yes and someone in California can say no, and they favor the exact same thing,” Chris Poliquin, an assistant professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, who studies gun legislation after mass shootings, told Recode.
When asking Americans about their opinions on more specific gun policies, the results are clearer. A vast majority of Americans supports universal background checks, keeping people with serious mental health issues from buying guns, bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and so-called “red flag laws” that would allow police and family members to seek court orders to temporarily take guns away from those considered a risk to themselves and others. A majority of Americans, of both political parties, oppose carrying concealed weapons without a permit.
In the wake of tragedies like last week’s Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting, in which 19 children and two teachers were murdered at an elementary school, there have always been calls for stricter national gun legislation, but those measures rarely pass and are often very modest when they do pass. That said, federal gun laws — which are much more popular among Democrats than Republicans — remain a particularly high priority, since many of the guns used in crimes come from states with looser gun laws.
There’s much more action at the state level, but it doesn’t typically end with progress. Poliquin’s research found that state legislatures consider 15 percent more firearm bills in the year after a mass shooting, although the existence of more bills doesn’t typically lead to stricter gun laws. In fact, Republican legislatures pass more gun-related legislation in the wake of mass shootings — but they’re laws that make gun laws less strict.
America’s increased polarization makes things difficult.
“A lot of those [gun control measures] are actually supported in the abstract by gun owners, but often not in practice,” Matthew Lacombe, an assistant professor at Barnard and author of Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force, told Recode. “So people have a particular issue stance, but then that issue becomes salient and Democratic and Republican politicians start taking clear stances on it. And then people’s views tend to fall into line to match their partisan outlooks.”
Part of the issue is that Americans have somewhat conflicting stances on gun control. But what’s a bigger problem is that even when a majority of Americans agree, a simple majority of lawmakers agreeing on a bill is not enough to pass laws in our country. The Senate filibuster lets a minority of states — and Americans — veto national policy that the majority of Americans want. The result is a minority of people making the laws for the majority of Americans, regardless of what the population at large thinks.
Background checks are by far the least controversial aspect of gun legislation, according to a whole lot of surveys. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, which would mean all sellers would have to verify that a person doesn’t have a history of violent crime or domestic abuse before they can buy a gun. As Robin Lloyd, managing director of the gun control advocacy group Giffords, put it, “Background checks on every gun sale polls higher than people who support ice cream.”
That overwhelmingly broad support, however, has not led to sweeping national requirements for background checks. There are currently laws requiring extended background checks for all people who buy guns in 21 states, but federal law only covers sales between federally licensed dealers. That means there’s a loophole in which about a fifth of gun sales — sold privately, online, and at gun shows — are done without that oversight. Even states that have expanded laws suffer from an influx of guns from those that don’t.
Of course, many mass shooters would have no trouble passing a background check. The 18-year-old Uvalde shooter, for instance, legally purchased his guns. The Buffalo shooter bought his guns legally. The Parkland shooter did. The list goes on. Still, according to a 2020 study, the odds of mass shootings are 60 percent lower in states with laws requiring permits for firearms — and, by extension, background checks.
Notably, many of these killers are young and don’t yet have a record. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, there was massive support for raising the legal age for buying a firearm from 18 to 21. Universal background checks are one of those rare issues that both Republicans (70 percent) and Democrats (92 percent) support, but partisanship in other areas keeps it from going anywhere. Republican senators would have to cross the aisle to vote for gun control laws — a move that would likely hurt them in their state primaries.
The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, or HR 8, which would close the background check loophole, was sketched out in rough form after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre a decade ago. Despite lawmakers from both sides of the aisle signaling support for such bills, these bills have repeatedly passed the House only to languish in the Senate.
Red flag laws
Americans overwhelmingly support red flag laws, otherwise known as extreme risk protection orders, which work similarly to restraining orders. Again, these laws allow police and family members to petition a court — which would determine whether there’s enough evidence to do so — to temporarily keep guns from people who might be a threat to themselves or others. Some 77 percent of Americans think that a family member should be able to petition a court to do this, while 70 percent think police should, according to a survey by APM Research Lab.
And this approach to gun control has been gaining traction in recent years. A number of states adopted such laws following the Parkland, Florida, shooting, in which the gunman, like many mass shooters, displayed obvious red flags. (An acquaintance said he’d introduce himself, “Hi, I’m Nick. I’m a school shooter.”) Some say the red flag approach might be less controversial with gun owners, specifically, because it seems like common sense.
“Red flag laws are promising because they’re specifically targeted at people or cases or instances in which there’s reason to believe that there might be a problem,” Lacombe said. “So it’s not like a blanket rule that treats gun owners like a particular class of citizen.”
Of course, for red flag laws to be useful, they have to be used. If police had decided to seek such an order against the shooter in the Buffalo supermarket earlier this month, who had been referred to police for threatening violence, 10 gun deaths could have been prevented. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has since announced an executive order that would compel police to do so.
Mental health restrictions
There’s also overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle (85 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats) for stopping those with mental illness from buying a gun. But in the case of gun sales that happen through a licensed dealer, that’s supposed to already be happening (though the same loopholes occur for online and private sellers). If a court has had someone involuntarily committed or otherwise determined that they are incapable of managing their life, that person is not supposed to be able to buy a gun, since they should be flagged by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.
In practice, that has not always happened.
After a student with a documented history of court-ordered mental health treatment shot and killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in 2007, there was a major push to make sure state-level records were entered into NICS. George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Act into law in 2008, but it still had huge holes where relevant state and federal records were not uploaded to the database. Some of those were remedied by the Fix NICS Act that was signed into law in 2018, but the system is far from perfect.
Additionally, mass shooters generally wouldn’t be considered to have mental illness severe enough to show up in the federal gun database in the first place.
“There’s sort of this perception about mass shooters that they are severely mentally ill people,” Poliquin said. “Although they might have mental health issues, the level of mental health issues doesn’t necessarily lead to institutionalization.”
Additionally, there’s a lot of debate over mental health and mass shooting coming from Republicans that might be in bad faith. It’s not as though Americans have a higher rate of mental health problems than other countries — what makes the US exceptional is the number of guns in the country and the corresponding number of gun deaths.
“I’m not aware of any instance in which a Republican saying that this is really a mental health issue has actually then come forward with a proposal to invest additional resources in our public health and mental health infrastructure, which I think sends a signal just how serious they are,” Lacombe said.
Assault rifles and high-capacity magazines
Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines have an approval rating of over 60 percent in the US, according to Pew.
Assault weapons are a poorly defined class of firearms, but generally refer to military-style semi-automatic weapons. High-capacity magazines are generally ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds. AR-15s, the preferred style of weapon in recent mass shootings, are assault weapons, which can be modified to accept a number of after-market parts, including high-capacity magazines, that make it even deadlier.
While it has majority support, banning assault weapons is much more divided by political party. While 83 percent of Democrats approve of banning assault-style weapons, just 37 percent of Republicans do; 83 percent of Democrats would like a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines compared with 41 percent of Republicans.
Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, both of which allow murderers to kill more people in a short span of time, used to be illegal in the US. A federal law passed in 1994 banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but Congress let the legislation lapse in 2004. Even though the 1994 law had its issues — it didn’t make illegal or confiscate the 1.5 million assault weapons and 25 million large-capacity magazines that Americans already owned — the bans did significantly reduce death tolls while they were in effect.
“After that, we’ve just seen like an explosion of assault weapons all across the country,” Lloyd said, estimating the number to be in the tens of millions.
Cassandra Crifasi, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said gun laws should go beyond simply listing which specific guns are restricted or not by making it harder to get deadly gun accessories.
“In response to some of these bans, you can buy a rifle that falls into the approved list, and then you can find accessories online or at gun shows that allow you to customize it and then it may become in violation of the ban,” she said. “Once you have the rifle, if you can then buy those accessories after-market, you can skirt around the ban.”
The Buffalo shooter, for example, purchased his AR-15-style gun legally but modified it to accept a large-capacity magazine that is illegal in New York.
However it’s defined, Lloyd says, limiting guns, ammo, and accessories would limit the extent of gun violence in mass shootings.
“It is impossible to ignore the fact that assault weapons are extremely dangerous because of how many people they can kill in such a short amount of time,” she said, referring to the death tolls in Buffalo and Uvalde.
There is proposed legislation, including the Keep Americans Safe Act (HR 2510 / S 1108), that would ban high-capacity magazines, and the Assault Weapons Ban of 2021, which would ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. All of these bills have been introduced but not voted on, and thanks to the filibuster, would be unlikely to pass without a lot more Republican support.
Though it varies by party, the vast majority (81 percent) of Americans oppose laws that would allow people to carry concealed handguns without a permit, according to a recent poll this month by Marquette Law School. And generally, support for the wider ability to carry guns — in schools, without permits — has been declining, according to Crifasi.
At the same time, laws allowing people to carry weapons in public have become much more commonplace in the last decade. The effort, however, began decades before in the 1980s as the NRA, beginning in Florida, sought to get states to slowly roll back their concealed carry laws from something that was a special dispensation to something that was expected as a way for gun owners to express their Second Amendment rights. Just last year, the Texas legislature passed a law making it so that people no longer need a license or training to carry a handgun.
“The NRA put forth a pretty strategic, organized, and concerted effort to change state laws, one state at a time,” Lacombe said. “As it became increasingly normalized to be in the law, voters also became more likely to see it as acceptable.”
The thinking behind these Republican and NRA talking points is that having a concealed weapon would allow the “good guys” to take down the bad guys. In practice, that doesn’t actually happen. Though there are a handful of anecdotes in which a person with a concealed weapon successfully stops a mass shooter, adding more guns to the mix is more dangerous. To wit: a man who stopped a mass shooter with his concealed weapon last year in Colorado, only to be mistakenly shot and killed by police.
As the conceal carry issue shows, gun policy reflects the influence of NRA lobbyists more than everyday Americans.
“We have an exceptionally powerful gun lobby that works on behalf of gun manufacturers to make it easy for gun dealers and gun manufacturers to sell a lot of guns really easily,” Crifasi said. “And many of our elected officials are more beholden to the gun lobby than they are to their own constituents.”
Many of the gun control ideas above are part of kitchen table discussions being had right now across the country, as Americans mourn yet another senseless tragedy at the hands of a mass shooter. Specific gun control measures have bipartisan support and could go a long way toward stopping the next mass shooting before it happens.
Unfortunately, what Americans want is not being reflected in America’s laws. The ability of the minority in small, mostly rural, and mostly white communities to outweigh the majority has vast repercussions for the way we live and the way we die. The Senate filibuster is undermining democracy, and in turn is undermining the American government’s legitimacy. It’s possible tragic events like the one last week in Texas could help turn the tide, but for now. tide-turning would require support from Republican lawmakers that actually matches the desires of their Republican constituents.
For that to change, Republicans in addition to Democrats will have to vote out politicians whose stances on guns don’t align with theirs. If not, these conversations begin and end at the kitchen table.