Democrats get dyspeptic trying to understand why, despite the large majorities of Americans who favor specific gun control laws, Congress has done nothing. But the answer to that conundrum also explains why Hillary Clinton felt free to propose stronger gun controls than Bernie Sanders has. Earlier this week, she said she would prevent those convicted of domestic abuse from buying guns, close the “gun show” and “Charleston” loopholes,1 and work to repeal a law that helps gun manufacturers avoid legal consequences from the criminal use of their products. She’s the second Democrat to propose tough new regulations. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, goes even further than Clinton; he proposed a national firearms registry, among other new laws.
The bulk of support for stricter gun control comes from concentrated majorities in cities and in blue states. Opposition is distributed more widely across the country. That disconnect helps prevent gun control laws from passing Congress, but does nothing to discourage a Democrat campaigning for national office from pushing for gun control. The reason for the former is the undemocratic nature of the Senate; the latter is in part because of the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College.
Nevada’s two senators are as powerful as New York’s two senators, even though New York’s population is six times the size of Nevada’s. There isn’t great data on support for gun control laws by state — polling on the subject is tricky — but here’s a decent proxy: gun ownership. The gun ownership rate in New York, according to a Boston University survey, was 10 percent in 2013. In Nevada, it was 38 percent. The views of both states get equal weight in the Senate.
Indeed, there’s a disconnect between population and gun ownership:
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It turns out, moreover, that anti-gun-control voters, who tend to be whiter and older than the overall population, are generally more regular voters, so there’s an additional tug against politicians in states and districts that tend to split along red/blue lines fairly evenly. This also explains why Democratic candidates for president feel free to support gun control now, but members of Congress don’t, especially if they’re from rural states. Our system of government makes it much harder to dislodge strongly held cultural beliefs through legislation, in part because it gives beliefs that originate in rural, less-populous states disproportionate influence. To use another example, it doesn’t matter if majorities of voters support legislation to address climate change if the senators from enough small-population states don’t.
Another problem for Democrats: When they advocate gun control policies, people who might support those policies oppose them because they come from Democrats. Even calling it “gun control” smacks of big government. Republicans who support gun control on its merits are less likely to vote for a candidate who notes that broad gun control measures would confer significant benefits for everyone — which is the way that Democrats tend to run on guns. Republicans don’t go for those sorts of arguments generally. As the editor in chief of this site has noted, gun ownership is “deeply enmeshed” in political identity, though the power of the gun lobby ebbs and flows over time.
Will Clinton’s proposals complicate her electoral math in the general election? She doesn’t have to worry about most of the rural states that oppose gun control, which are unlikely to support her anyway. And the gun ownership rate in nine swing states2 is 29 percent, on average. The rate nationally: 29 percent.