Polls show that Republican voters prioritize gun rights over gun control but aren’t universally opposed to restrictions on firearms. In fact, most Republicans support expanding background checks. Most back “red flag” provisions allowing the police to take guns away from people deemed dangerous by a judge. A majority support requiring a license to purchase a gun.
So with Democrats calling on the GOP-controlled Senate to take action on gun control in the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — in particular, to pass a bill adopted in February by the Democratic-controlled House that would essentially create universal background checks — will anything happen?
It isn’t impossible. President Trump suggested in a speech on Monday that he would push for “red flag” laws. But Trump has indicated support for gun control measures after previous mass shootings, and then either backtracked or done little as the measures failed to move through Congress. And indeed, Republicans in Congress have blocked every recent attempt to pass major new gun control laws.
Don’t be surprised if that happens again. It’s not that Republican voters are adamantly opposed to gun control, as the data above shows. But the Republican Party as an institution is hostile to gun control measures.
First, guns are tied in with the dominant political identity within the GOP, which muddies the political consequences of backing gun control measures despite the poll results on individual policies. If you’re a Republican elected official, you have to be aware that a vote for some kind of gun control measure (even a popular one) could potentially get you cast as “anti-gun” and broadly “of the left,” in a way that could make you electorally vulnerable.
You can see evidence of this in the more abstract poll questions about gun policy; most Republicans support some specific provisions, but on the general issue, they clearly fall on the side of gun rights:
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote last year, some scholars view gun ownership as a “political identity,” shaping how people see politics similar to the way that race and religion do. Also, views on guns don’t exist in a vacuum: They are part of and connected to broader forces driving conservative politics. For example, University of Illinois at Chicago scholars Alexandra Filindra and Noah Kaplan concluded in a 2015 study that more negative attitudes towards minorities (“racial resentment”) are a predictor of opposition to gun control among white Americans.
In other words, Republican voters may say they support certain gun control measures, but perhaps not the culturally liberal, urban people pushing gun control — and the latter may be the more important factor to consider for a Republican politician trying to keep his or her job.
“My grassroots tea party interviewees were very pro-gun, an issue often linked in their minds to fear of immigration,” said Vanessa Williamson, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”
Second, there’s Republican elected officials themselves. It’s hard to know exactly how many Republican officials would adamantly oppose gun control if the National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists were not such a powerful force in GOP politics. (More on those groups in a bit.) But it’s probably wrong to suggest the congressional GOP’s anti-gun control stance is solely due to pressure from outside groups. Whether you’re looking at member voting records, the high number of self-described Republican moderates either leaving Congress voluntarily or being defeated or the rise of the Freedom Caucus in the House, there is a lot of evidence that the average Republican member of Congress is more conservative than two decades ago. And it’s likely that extends to gun policy too. Just look at what’s happening at the state level. The party is aggressively working to expand gun rights, such as allowing people to carry concealed weapons without permits, in states where it has total control of the government.
So even in a scenario where, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote a fairly limited gun control measure and Trump endorsed it, I’m not sure that such a provision would get a ton of Republican votes in the House or Senate.
Finally, there’s no significant pro-gun control power within the GOP. Sure, the NRA is organized and donates heavily to conservative politicians, and Fox News is likely to bash gun control measures. But beyond that, there is no countervailing force in the party promoting gun control, offering resources and money to help Republicans who take that stance. In this sense, gun policy in the GOP is akin to abortion on the Democratic side — there’s a sizable bloc of Democrats who favor limits on abortion, but there’s no counterweight to abortion rights groups like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood.
“The NRA is the model of a great powerful American interest group,” said Matt Glassman, a congressional expert at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. It has millions of members, is well organized and exerts constant pressure, he said.
“More importantly, they appear to have a huge number of single-issue voters that they have cultivated and keep motivated,” Glassman said. “They can credibly threaten to have a fair percentage of GOP primary voters literally walk away from a representative over their issue. That’s so much more valuable than having an opinion majority on your side. … The power of single-issue voters is one of the most underappreciated aspects of politics.”
None of this is to say that some kind of gun control measure won’t pass. But a more comprehensive measure or group of measures (like expanding background checks, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and adopting red flag laws) faces huge barriers with a Republican-controlled Senate and a GOP president — even though a majority of voters overall and a sizable bloc of GOP voters would likely support all of that.
In 1994, when the U.S. adopted an assault weapons ban, 38 House Republicans and 10 GOP senators voted in favor of it. Twenty-five years and many mass shootings later, only eight Republicans backed the background checks bill that passed the House earlier this year. Republican voters may be moving, along with the rest of the country, in embracing gun control measures — but don’t expect the Republican Party to move too much anytime soon.