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Did Democrats Give Up in the Gun Control Debate?

As The Times’s Dalia Sussman noted on Tuesday, Americans have generally become more protective of gun ownership rights in recent years.

There are some exceptions to the rule — for instance, according to the General Social Survey, conducted intermittently since 1972, the percentage of Americans who think permits should be required before a gun can be obtained has gradually risen (to 79 percent in 2008 from 72 percent in 1972). Background checks for gun owners are overwhelmingly popular, attracting the support of as many as 90 percent of Americans. And while most Americans say they do not want gun control regulations to become stricter, even fewer — about 10 percent — think they should be made more lax.

Still, the overall pattern is reasonably clear. According to Gallup surveys, for instance, the number of Americans favoring a ban on handguns has been on a long-term decline and is now about 30 percent, down almost 10 percentage points from a decade earlier:

What’s interesting is that this has occurred despite gun ownership becoming less common. When the General Social Survey was first conducted in 1973, about half (49 percent) of Americans reported having a firearm in their households. But the fraction was down to 36 percent by 2008:

It’s interesting to ask why, exactly, this has happened. Someone looking at the trends a couple of decades ago might very easily have guessed that support for gun control would tend to increase as the population gradually became more urban, since gun ownership is much less common in cities.

Could changes in the rate of violent crime have something to do with it? Perhaps, but it is hard to track any sort of one-to-one relationship between crime rates and public opinion on guns. The rate of violent crime increased steadily in the United States for most of the past half-century, peaking in 1991, before embarking upon a relatively steep decline. But support for gun rights generally increased both as the crime rate was rising and then after it began to fall.

Partisan politics, of course, might also have played a role. I reviewed the official party platforms for both Democrats and Republicans since 1960, in order to see what positions they have generally taken in the past on gun control.

The respective positions of the parties have shifted over time. In 1968, Republicans took a moderate position on guns as part of Richard Nixon’s emphasis on law and order. Their platform favored “enactment of legislation to control indiscriminate availability of firearms” while “safeguarding the right of responsible citizens to collect, own and use firearms for legitimate purposes,” and recommended a balance between federal and state responsibilities.

By 1992, however, Republican language was less equivocal, and claimed that liberals were weak on guns, just as they were on national defense:

We note that those who seek to disarm citizens in their homes are the same liberals who tried to disarm our Nation during the Cold War and are today seeking to cut our national defense below safe levels.

This was something new; in 1984 and 1988, the Republican Party platform did not mention guns at all (nor did the Democratic Party platform, for that matter). Perhaps the dynamics of the presidential election of 1988, in which both George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis had to combat the perception of “wimpiness” (culminating in the infamous image of Mr. Dukakis awkwardly riding in a tank), inspired Republicans to think that this kind of rhetoric might be effective.

By 2004, gun rights held an even more central position in the Republican platform, with nearly 400 words devoted to them. The 2004 platform invoked the Second Amendment much more confidently than in the past, and its support for gun rights was more sweeping, opposing licensing and registration requirements and chiding liberals for what it called “frivolous lawsuits against firearms manufacturers” while promising to “improve opportunities for hunting for Americans with disabilities.”

The Democratic position on gun control has waxed and waned, meanwhile. George McGovern’s platform in 1972 called for a ban on handguns, explicitly citing the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the attempted assassination of George Wallace during his presidential campaign.

The Democrats’ language became much more cautious in 1976 and 1980 under Jimmy Carter, and gun control wasn’t mentioned at all in their 1984 or 1988 platforms.

Bill Clinton’s platform in 1996, however, was quite confident on the issue of gun control, promoting Mr. Clinton’s success in passing an assault weapons ban and calling Republicans out for their foot-dragging on the issue:

Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and George Bush were able to hold the Brady Bill hostage for the gun lobby until Bill Clinton became President. With his leadership, we made the Brady Bill the law of the land. And because we did, more than 60,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers have been stopped from buying guns. President Clinton led the fight to ban 19 deadly assault weapons, designed for one purpose only — to kill human beings. We oppose efforts to restrict weapons used for legitimate sporting purposes, and we are proud that not one hunter or sportsman was forced to change guns because of the assault weapons ban. But we know that the military-style guns we banned have no place on America’s streets, and we are proud of the courageous Democrats who defied the gun lobby and sacrificed their seats in Congress to make America safer.

By 2004, however, Democrats again seemed to be in retreat on the issue. John Kerry’s platform that year opened by promising to “protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms” and then advocated only measured steps to limit access to guns, like “closing the gun show loophole.”

Their 2008 platform was similarly tempered on the issue, with Democrats essentially agreeing to disagree:

We recognize that the right to bear arms is an important part of the American tradition, and we will preserve Americans’ Second Amendment right to own and use firearms. We believe that the right to own firearms is subject to reasonable regulation, but we know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that support for gun control measures has declined in recent years, with one of the parties essentially having surrendered on the issue. Somewhere along the line — perhaps between 2000 and 2004, when the rhetoric in their platform changed significantly — Democrats concluded that the issue was a political loser for them and they stopped fighting back.

It may also be that gun control has became less a priority for the Democratic Party’s key stakeholders. On one hand, major cities — where Democratic voters and donors have long been concentrated — became much safer during the decade of the 2000s, and so gun violence would have seemed a less immediate threat to an Upper East Side liberal in 2008 than it would have in 1988.

On the other hand, gun control fits somewhat awkwardly into the constellation of political issues. On issues like gay rights and abortion, Democrats have advocated for a more expansive interpretation of the protections offered by the Constitution, something where stricter controls on gun ownership would arguably conflict. Certainly by 2004, when the Democratic platform conceded the position that the Second Amendment explicitly protected private gun ownership (rather than just “well-regulated militias”), they were placing themselves on somewhat infirm intellectual ground to the extent they might later seek to call for further regulation on guns.

Perhaps Democrats ultimately made the right political calculation. But they might also have made the outcome of the debate over gun control something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since with exceptionally sharp and cagey groups like the National Rifle Association as their adversaries, the Democrats certainly weren’t going to win any arguments that they were tentative about engaging in.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.