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Searching for answers on gun bill

Many are asking how senators — elected officials, who are supposed to represent the public and are required to garner voters’ support — could so flagrantly disregard public opinion in opposing the background checks for gun buyers that some 90 percent of Americans embrace. 

The most common explanation rests on the presumption that opponents of gun safety harbor more intense views than supporters. While this argument points in a useful direction, it is oversimple to the point of being inaccurate.

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When 90 percent support a particular policy, it is almost mathematically impossible to find a larger number of intense opponents within the 10 percent than intense supporters within the 90 percent who favor the idea — and in fact, there isn’t an intensity gap favoring opponents. The simplest measure of intensity asks how strongly respondents hold their view. Like others, an ABC/Washington Post poll found 76 percent strongly favoring background checks on gun buyers and a mere 9 percent strongly opposed. Here, intensity is overwhelmingly with supporters, not opponents.

If the issue is not intensity, then what? Beyond the phenomenon of G. Gordon Liddy Republicans I discussed here earlier (they just don’t care), several other factors come into play.

First, while there might not be a difference in intensity, there is a difference in ease of mobilization — organizing opponents is easier than organizing supporters of an issue. Frequently, shooting guns is a group activity. Many hunt in groups, while millions — and more likely, tens of millions — of Americans attend the 2,500 to 5,000 gun shows that take place across the country each year, where they are fired up and made ready to go. In addition, this country is home to more gun stores than grocery stores, and those 50,000+ establishments provide another focal point for organizing and motivating. 

Where do you find supporters of background checks? Everywhere, and nowhere in particular. There are no large gatherings where supporters of background checks can urge each other to act or where their activism can be easily facilitated.

This organizational asymmetry is evident in congressional offices, many of which receive far more communications opposed to gun control than in support of such measures. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found gun owners much more likely to communicate on the issue with members of Congress (18 percent) than non-gun owners (10 percent). Now, the data are hardly perfect, but assume that those on both sides communicate with equal frequency — which is doubtful — and that gun owners are anti-regulation and non-owners are pro-regulation — which is close enough — then, about 60 percent of the communication that members receive on the issue comes from constituents opposed to gun control. Moreover, take out large, liberal states like New York, New Jersey and California, and it’s likely communications are even more lopsided in swing states.

Moreover, the distribution of views on gun issues varies across each state. In general, more populous states tend to be more supportive of gun control, while smaller states are most likely to be opposed. Yet, the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention that created our Senate was designed to give those smaller states equal weight in that body. The 13 states where, according to the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, support for stricter gun control was above 50 percent contain 45 percent of the nation’s population but only 26 percent of the senators.

Some respected colleagues who authored a highly selective and somewhat misleading report on public opinion relative to gun issues would likely chide me for drawing on such general “climate” questions. But if the point is to understand congressional behavior, not just attitudes toward background checks, so-called “climate” questions yield important insights. Members of Congress acquire a rough feel of public opinion, and that feel is not confined to the specifics of the policy proposals under discussion. It matters that, today, just about half of Americans want stricter gun control; the majorities that don’t envision these measures curbing gun violence matter, as does the low priority accorded to gun issues.

As I’ve made clear here before, I believe the Senate should have passed background checks and even stricter measures, and while it may be shocking that the Senate seemingly stuck its finger in the eye of 90 percent of Americans, upon reflection, their error is at least explicable.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.