Protesters hold signs with the message #Neveragain during a Feb. 17, 2018, protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, shot and killed 17 people at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School last year. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press file photo)

Protesters hold signs with the message #Neveragain during a Feb. 17, 2018, protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, shot and killed 17 people at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School last year. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press file photo)

Viewpoints: Why U.S. gun laws are slow to change

Gun legislation, while popular with the public, faces inertia in Congress and the will of voters.

By Harry L. Wilson

For The Conversation

One year after the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida and a handful of states have passed stricter gun laws, but little has changed with the federal government’s firearms policy.

Polls conducted after the Florida shooting showed that a majority of Americans supported stronger gun laws — including tighter restrictions on purchases and a ban on assault weapons — in the wake of the shooting.

Students demanded that elected officials “do something,” and many adults echoed that sentiment.

But policy does not always follow public opinion. Why are the public’s pleas on this and other issues ignored?

I’m a pollster and a political scientist who has examined the issue from different perspectives.

I’ve found three major reasons that policy does not always follow public opinion: the structure of the U.S. government, the overlooked complexities of public opinion and the influence of voters and interest groups.

Citizens don’t make policy: First, the United States is a republic, not a direct democracy. Citizens choose representatives who make policy decisions; citizens do not make those decisions directly. The Founders, who were not all fans of democracy and feared mob rule, established our governmental structure over 200 years ago, and those foundations remain today.

While about half the states have some form of initiative or referendum process to allow voters to directly enact policy, there is no such provision in the U.S. Constitution. And for those who advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment as a way to restrict gun ownership in the U.S., that’s not accomplished directly by citizens, either. Such changes would have to be voted on by elected representatives in Congress and legislatures across the country.

The composition and rules of Congress are also crucial, especially in the Senate, where each state has two votes. By design, this allocation of senators disproportionately represents the interests of less populous states.

So California and New York, the first and fourth largest states and ones that favor stricter gun laws, comprise about 18 percent of the population of the United States but only 4 percent of U.S. senators. Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Idaho, which tend to favor gun rights, comprise about 2 percent of the population and 12 percent of the Senate.

The House of Representatives, where each state is guaranteed at least one representative, also advantages lower-population states, albeit to a much lesser extent. The House is also subject to the partisan drawing of districts which has advantaged Republicans — who tend to support gun rights — since the 2010 census.

The ubiquitous use of the filibuster, which can allow a Senate minority to block majority-supported legislation means most substantive legislation must get 60 votes in the Senate to pass. In a closely divided Senate, 60 votes are almost impossible to muster.

In addition, national sentiment is not mirrored in every state or congressional district.

Policy often doesn’t follow polling: Second, polling and public opinion are not as straightforward as they seem.

Focusing on only one or two poll questions can distort the public’s views regarding gun control.

Polling numbers generally show strong support for gun control measures such as universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

Simultaneously, most Americans think that additional gun control measures won’t reduce violent crime. This is not surprising because most Americans don’t blame guns for these tragedies.

We should also keep in mind that gun control is not the only issue in which policy does not follow opinion. Other such issues include foreign aid and abortion.

And policy that reflects the “will of the people” may collide with legitimate legal constraints. Crafting legislation that disqualifies those we all agree should not possess firearms but protects the rights of law-abiding citizens is quite difficult.

For example, the American Civil Liberties Union opposed an order that would have prevented Social Security recipients with mental disabilities who have others managing their benefits from purchasing firearms. “Assault weapons” are difficult to define — and thus legally ban — because semi-automatic rifles can be used for hunting, too, as can AR-style rifles, although they are not commonly used for that purpose.

People vote, not polls: Finally, the influence of voters and interest groups can counteract the influence of the majority’s opinion in swaying policy.

Who votes matters. Gun owners are more likely than non-owners to vote based on the issue of gun control, to have contacted an elected official about gun rights, and to have contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun control.

Such differing rates of political activity are to be expected because many gun owners fear their rights are or will be restricted, and that drives them to the polls. But the frequent appearances of gun control advocates in the news can lead to the erroneous impression that they are more passionate than gun rights supporters.

The National Rifle Association is a critical player in this discussion. In some ways a victim of its own success, the gun owners’ rights group is thought by many to have outsized power that it wields indiscriminately. In the last year, however, the organization’s finances and membership have diminished.

Its critics have called it a terrorist organization with blood on its hands and legislators who support gun rights have been referred to as “NRA-complicit bloody handed mass murder enablers.”

At the major national annual conference for conservatives in February 2018, known as CPAC, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre responded to that criticism by talking about a “socialist agenda.” He said NRA critics and “the elite” wanted to “eradicate all individual freedoms.”

The rhetoric is toxic, and both sides are guilty.

Whatever power the NRA possesses is a result of its membership and their votes. It claims approximately 5 million members, who pay attention to the group’s candidate ratings and generally vote accordingly.

Many others who are not members also agree with the group as evidenced by its consistent “favorable” ratings, typically measured in the 50 percent-plus range. Support for stricter gun laws typically increases after a mass shooting, but it tends to revert back to the trend line over time.

Elected officials want votes. There is no doubt that money is essential for political campaigns, but votes, not money or polls, are what determine elections. If a group can supply votes, then it has power. As such, the NRA is very powerful in some parts of the country while quite weak in others.

Many factors influence how legislation is drafted, amended, enacted and implemented. Searching for a direct causal connection from public opinion to specific policies, including gun control, may be akin to a search for the holy grail.

Our elected officials care more about the opinions of those who vote for them than what the nation as a whole thinks. On most issues they represent the interests of the majority of voters in their districts. Or they get voted out of office.

Harry L. Wilson is a professor and director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. This is an updated version of an article originally published March 7, 2018.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Artist Natalie Niblack works amongst her project entitled “33 Birds / Three Degrees” during the setup for Exploring The Edge at Schack Art Center on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Everett, Washington. The paintings feature motion-activated speakers that play each bird’s unique call. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: For 50 years Schack Art Center there for creation

The art center is more art studio than museum, supporting artists and fostering creativity in kids.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Wednesday, June 12

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Everett principal Betty Cobbs served kids, community for 51 years

Education and community. Those words are the best America has to offer;… Continue reading

Tufekci: Covid a lesson for officials on fragility of trust

In seeking to manage the message, scientists and officials took risks that have cost the public’s trust.

Collins: Republicans’ zeal against Biden’s son a double-standard

While they’re attacking Hunter Biden’s gun possession, they’re working to relax similar gun measures.

Snohomish School District’s Clayton Lovell plugs in the district’s electric bus after morning routes on Thursday, March 6, 2024, at the district bus depot in Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Money well spent on switch to electric school buses

With grants awarded to local school districts, a study puts a dollar figure on health, climate savings.

Mangrove trees roots, Rhizophora mangle, above and below the water in the Caribbean sea, Panama, Central America
Editorial: Support local newspapers work to hometowns’ benefit

A writer compares them to mangrove trees, filtering toxins and providing support to their neighbors.

FILE - A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight, March 4, 2019. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines owns Horizon Air. Three passengers sued Alaska Airlines on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, saying they suffered emotional distress from an incident last month in which an off-duty pilot, was accused of trying to shut down the engines of a flight from Washington state to San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: FAA bill set to improve flight safety, experience

With FAA reauthorization, Congress proves it’s capable of legislating and not just throwing shade.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Tuesday, June 11

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Krugman: Yes, the debt is huge, but we’ve got bigger problems

Reducing the debt is a relatively simple task, but it takes political will and bipartisan action now in short supply.

National leaders must address U.S. debt crisis

Kel Wilson’s Forum essay regarding the national debt is important (“National debt… Continue reading

Work and wisdom of Trump’s trial jury should be respected

Donald Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts of falsification of business… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.