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Why Hillary Clinton Feels Safe Running To The Left Of Bernie Sanders On Guns

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:

Alaska 736,732 61.7%
Arkansas 2,966,369 57.9
Idaho 1,634,464 56.9
West Virginia 1,850,326 54.2
Wyoming 584,153 53.8
Montana 1,023,579 52.3
New Mexico 2,085,572 49.9
Alabama 4,849,377 48.9
North Dakota 739,482 47.9
Hawaii 1,419,561 45.1
Louisiana 4,649,676 44.5
South Carolina 4,832,482 44.4
Mississippi 2,994,079 42.8
Kentucky 4,413,457 42.4
Tennessee 6,549,352 39.4
Nevada 2,839,099 37.5
Minnesota 5,457,173 36.7
Texas 26,956,958 35.7
South Dakota 853,175 35.0
Wisconsin 5,757,564 34.7
Colorado 5,355,866 34.3
Indiana 6,596,855 33.8
Iowa 3,107,126 33.8
Florida 19,893,297 32.5
Arizona 6,731,484 32.3
Kansas 2,904,021 32.2
Utah 2,942,902 31.9
Georgia 10,097,343 31.6
Oklahoma 3,878,051 31.2
Virginia 8,326,289 29.3
Michigan 9,909,877 28.8
Vermont 626,562 28.8
North Carolina 9,943,964 28.7
Washington 7,061,530 27.7
Missouri 6,063,589 27.1
Pennsylvania 12,787,209 27.1
Oregon 3,970,239 26.6
Illinois 12,880,580 26.2
District of Columbia 658,893 25.9
Maine 1,330,089 22.6
Massachusetts 6,745,408 22.6
Maryland 5,976,407 20.7
California 38,802,500 20.1
Nebraska 1,881,503 19.8
Ohio 11,594,163 19.6
Connecticut 3,596,677 16.6
New Hampshire 1,326,813 14.4
New Jersey 8,938,175 11.3
New York 19,746,227 10.3
Rhode Island 1,055,173 5.8
Delaware 935,614 5.2

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.


  1. Private sellers at gun shows, unlike licensed gun dealers, are not required to conduct background checks of buyers. The shooter in the Charleston massacre in June was able to buy a gun from a dealer because the background check wasn’t completed in 72 hours.

  2. Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Marc Ambinder, a writer based in Los Angeles, has covered every presidential campaign since 2000.