After every mass shooting, the obvious question emerges: Why hasn’t Congress done anything to keep extremely efficient killing machines out of the hands of murders? This is a problem that has been solved by most other rich countries; many blue states have adopted relatively strict gun control laws. Yet national Democrats running for office seem to cower in fear of the NRA and other pro-gun activists, worrying that support for even modest gun regulations can be used as a bludgeon in red districts. But is that fear based on reality, or could Democrats embrace gun control and still take the House?
The evidence suggests yes, even in the toughest districts that Democrats are contesting. National polls indicate strong and durable support for common-sense gun reforms such as banning assault rifles and closing the gun show loophole that allows some gun sales to be conducted without a background check. There is evidence that such laws might help stem mass shootings, though it’s clear that ending gun violence must be addressed by beyond those limited policies.
But national polling may not indicate much at the state or even congressional district level. To see what gun control polling looked like on a district-by-district basis, I asked political scientist Christopher Skovron for some help. Skovron is an expert in a modeling technique designed to estimate district-level opinion called multilevel regression and poststratification (MRP). That technique uses regression modeling that accounts for individual characteristics like race and gender as well as district characteristics like support for Trump.
Using the MRP estimates, I then analyzed support for ending the gun show loophole and banning assault weapons—policies often cited by gun control advocates—in the 98 Republican-held districts that Democrats are targeting. I find that in the average DCCC target district, support for closing the gun show loophole (“background checks for all sales, including at gun shows and over the internet” is how the question is worded) is a whopping 88 percent; support for an assault weapon ban (“ban assault weapons”) is 61 percent. The chart below shows the distribution of support for closing the gun show loophole (the three districts that stand out are Maine’s Second and the at-large districts for Montana and Alaska, all areas with strong gun cultures).
The chart below shows support for banning assault weapons. The only district where support is estimated to be lower than 50 percent are West Virginia’s Third, another place where anti–gun control views are no surprise. In Colorado’s Third and Montana’s at-large district, predicted support is almost exactly 50/50. But support an assault weapons ban dips below 55 percent in only 6 percent of DCCC target districts, suggesting that talking about a ban wouldn’t hurt a candidate.
So why don’t Democrats campaign more aggressively gun control? In a recent study co-authored with David Broockman, Skovron found that Democratic state legislators regularly underestimate the liberalism of their districts (as do Republicans, who believe they represent far more conservative districts than they actually do). The area where this gap is largest is gun control:
Politicians’ right-skewed misperceptions exceed 20 percentage points on issues such as gun control—where these misperceptions are the largest—and persist in states at every level of legislative professionalism, among both candidates and sitting officeholders, among politicians in very competitive districts, and when we compare politicians’ perceptions to voters’ opinions only.
In another paper, Skovron and Broockman surveyed county party chairs and found that while Democratic Party chairs favored moderate candidates, viewing liberalism as an electoral liability, Republicans did not similarly favor centrists over conservatives. "Pro-gun interests have succeeded not just in pushing politicians to do what they want through donations, but by actually manipulating their perceptions of the electorate’s positions through using grassroots organizing by gun owners," Skovron told me. He cited Pew polling suggesting that 21 percent of gun owners have contacted public officials about gun policy, while only 12 percent of non-owners have done so.
Pundits often suggest that the problem is an intensity gap between pro-gun voters and gun control voters, which may well have been true in the past, but I find no evidence that it remains the case. The American National Election Studies 2016 survey asks respondents to rate the importance of gun access to them. The chart below shows that Democrats are just as likely to rate the issue as “extremely important.” I find that 37 percent of respondents both believe that it should be more difficult to buy guns and rate the issue as “extremely” (19 percent) or “very” (18) important. That compares to 5 percent of respondents who want to make it easier to buy guns and rate it “extremely” (3 percent) or “very” (2) important. Finally, 23 percent of respondents believe that access to guns should be kept the same and believe the issue to be “extremely” (11 percent) or “very” (12 percent) important.
It’s important to note that this is generic opinion data, and the party should be agnostic as to how candidates message their support for gun control. For instance, red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin may want to boast about their pro-gun bona fides, which will actually give them more ability to push for gun control legislation because gun owners will feel less threatened. But there is little to be gained broadly by Democrats embracing guns. As Dan Friedman at the Trace has documented, the NRA no longer donates or endorses Democrats (with the exception of Henry Cuellar, the worst Democrat in Congress). Even if a Democrat is pro-gun, their Republican opponent will run to their right on the issue and collect gun lobby money and endorsements. And that position comes with a major downside: According to ANES, only 5 percent of Democrats support making it easier to buy a gun.
For too long Democrats have cowered in fear of the NRA, but there is little reason to believe they represent more than a small share of the population. For too long, Democrats have believed only pro-gun Blue Dogs can represent the districts they are targeting. In reality, Democrats can run on common-sense gun regulations and win, even in the reddest districts they need to win back the House.
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Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.