Gun politics in the U.S. demonstrate that a popular majority does not always get its way. Even though most Americans support stricter gun-safety laws, proposals for major new regulations reliably face impassable obstacles in Congress.
The standard explanation for this impasse is that the minority is highly mobilized and well-funded. This is only half right: The power of gun-control opponents stems more from their shared sense of identity than from their money.
Frustrated liberals are well aware of the difficulties they face in winning a major legislative battle over gun policy, but they often misunderstand the source of the obstruction. As in other policy areas, such as health care or environmental regulation, many Democrats are predisposed to view Republican opposition as primarily reflecting the supposedly undue influence of wealthy or corporate interests.
After this week’s mass shooting at a Nashville, Tennessee, school, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that Congress’s refusal to renew the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons was “all about money … big money in the gun business.” Democratic leaders habitually accuse the National Rifle Association of buying the votes of Republican politicians via direct financial contributions and independent campaign expenditures.
But while the NRA is a famously powerful interest group – despite some serious recent management problems- – most of its influence does not derive from the money it spends on elections. As the political scientist Matthew Lacombe explains in his 2021 book “Firepower,” the NRA’s most transformational achievement was not financial but cultural: It successfully defined gun ownership as a distinctive form of social identity.
For decades, Lacombe writes, the NRA has encouraged gun owners to see themselves as “reputable, honest, patriotic citizens who are self-sufficient and love freedom” but who constantly face unmerited attacks from “politicians, the media and lawyers.” He concludes that gun-control supporters are at a relative disadvantage because they lack a countervailing identity of their own.
In polls, a majority of Americans mildly favors the additional regulation of firearms. But few consider not owning a gun as a central element of their personal lifestyle that they will mobilize to defend.
Over the past decade or so, gun-safety advocates have founded several new organizations and engaged in increasingly visible forms of public protest. (One of the most prominent of these groups, Everytown for Gun Safety, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.) Much of this activism has openly invoked famous tragedies such as the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings, or has been led by victims of gun violence such as former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. The creation of this institutional infrastructure is a logical attempt to build a counterpart to the NRA and other gun rights groups, with the goal of convincing elected officials that popular passions are not limited to one side of the gun debate.
This activity has met with some success in pressuring Democratic politicians to keep gun control on their policy agenda. As well-educated suburbanites continue to replace white Southerners and rural residents within the party coalition, it’s getting much easier for Democratic leaders to keep their members united on the issue.
But gun-safety advocates are unlikely to extend their influence to the other side of the aisle. Gun owners and their family members are an important constituency within the conservative activist community and the Republican primary electorate. Republican officeholders are careful not to alienate gun-rights organizations because they are worried about losing votes, not just PAC money.
So the partisan gridlock over gun policy is less likely to be broken by specific political tactics than by a larger shift in the cultural zeitgeist. If gun ownership loses popular appeal as a salient personal identity – because it becomes socially discouraged or simply goes out of style – one of the major impediments to leftward policy change will become less formidable.
Staunch opponents of gun control may be outnumbered in the U.S. but they still wield considerable power. Not only have they prevented Congress from passing major gun-safety regulation, they have also succeeded in getting many Republican-controlled states to make it easier for citizens to purchase and carry guns. That’s because in politics, it doesn’t just matter what you say – it also matters how much you care.
David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”