Cultural nuances of the gun debate
A recent Politico headline shouted a message that liberal Democrats were longing to hear: “Gun control support surges in polls.” Given the fact that Republicans are generally opposed to strict gun controls, that seems like it should be a boost for the Democrats in the midterm election.
Despite that, many Democratic strategists worry that the gun control issue could backfire. Part of this concern stems from the fact that many Senate races are being held this year in GOP friendly states like West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. Democrats talking gun control in those states could hand victories to the other team.
But, even beyond certain states, buried in the Politico article is the fact that voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on the gun issue. Forty-one percent trust the GOP while 37 percent prefer the Dems. That may seem odd given apparent support for increased gun control, but the polling also showed that a plurality of Americans believes protecting the right of citizens to own guns is more important than limiting gun ownership.
The Democratic woes on this topic are probably the result of cultural differences more than narrow political positions. They simply don’t know how to talk to gun owners.
Most Republicans and half of all independents live in a household with a gun. According to Pew Research, just 25 percent of Democrats do the same. Guns are very rare in heavily Democratic urban areas, very common in Republican rural America, and fairly common in the contested suburbs.
Culturally, this means the Democrats live in a social circle where few own guns and many view them as an unmitigated evil with no redeeming qualities. Following a horrific mass shooting, they wonder when the rest of America will wake up and agree with them.
But most Americans have a more nuanced view. Rather than seeing guns as evil, 67 percent of gun owners say a primary reason they have a gun is for protection. Yes, they know that guns can cause problems, but the thought of giving up their gun makes them feel less safe.
Following a horror like the Parkland shootings, gun owners see children who were left unprotected. According to Pew data, 66 percent of gun owners believe teachers and other officials should be allowed to carry guns in elementary, middle, and high schools.
The polling data can’t possibly capture all the nuances of this discussion. Some people might think it’s great to have armed security guards at the school but want to keep guns away from teachers. Others might have different views. But the fact remains that many Americans believe both that guns can do great damage and are also essential for protection.
Importantly, regardless of the specific details, most Americans see that there are positive benefits to owning a gun. In fact, even half (52 percent) of non-gun-owners can see themselves owning a gun in the future.
In raw political terms, this helps explain how polls can show strong support for certain gun control measures while also showing that voters trust Republicans more on the issue. Many current and future gun owners can support modest restrictions such as background checks and waiting periods. But they get nervous with politicians who sound like such restrictions are only the first step to getting rid of all guns.