Democrats can turn hope for stronger gun laws into reality

Democrats can turn hope for stronger gun laws into reality
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After each mass shooting, my friends on the left struggle to explain the disconnect between public opinion and public policy. Why is it so hard to pass even the most popular and basic of stronger gun laws? Many offer a barrage of hypotheses: People lie on surveys, pro-gun voters are more enthusiastic, the NRA is immensely powerful, Democrats don’t know how to talk to law-abiding gun owners, and so forth. Mass shootings, combined with our toxic political climate on guns, leave many advocates feeling powerless. But we need not throw up our hands. Recent polling reveals nine data-driven ways to take action.

First, stop calling it “gun control.” First, for crying out loud, allies should stop using the phrase “gun control.” The word “control” has repeatedly been shown to depress support for stronger gun laws. As a word it’s needlessly aggressive. We do not talk about car control, truck control, or even alcohol or tobacco control. The debate is over “stronger” or “common sense” gun laws. Remember to further emphasize the end goals and core values at stake. In order to reduce the number of gun deaths, guns should be harder to get, not easier.

Second, think beyond just background checks. We’ve all seen the numbers on background checks. They’re in the 90s. But many other stronger gun laws enjoy majority support, including registries, buybacks, safety training, the end to either open or concealed carry, and semi-assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition bans. My recent poll for the group Guns Down showed majorities of voters supporting 15 of the 16 proposals we tested. The New York Times found similar results earlier this year. Several states have passed stronger gun law measures in the last few years, including Nevada.

Third, remind voters of current lax gun laws. Remember voters want to make it harder, not easier, to get guns, so it’s worth reminding voters of the current flimsy regulatory patchwork. There is plenty of material from which to choose, including the number of guns bought without a background check, the availability of guns for people under restraining orders for domestic violence, the lack of safety training in many states, and that loaded guns can be legally kept near children. Highlighting the current landscape is one of our most powerful messages in reaching voters across party lines.

Fourth, remember many gun owners are allies. Please believe that not all gun owners support military-style assault weapons, or want to see guns being sold in a parking lot without a background check. In our Guns Down poll, 13 of the 16 proposals received majority support from gun owners. Pew Research recently found gun owners open to a variety of stronger gun laws, such as a federal database.

Fifth, take heart in that true gun extremists are not a large group. We’ve all heard the argument that pro-gun voters are very enthusiastic, while those in favor of stronger laws are apathetic. Even if that were true, with such broad support for gun laws, there are more of us than there are of them. The same recent Pew study finds gun owners who are also NRA members are the most fervent in their anti-gun law stance, yet they make up only about 6 percent of the population. It’s questionable whether pro-gun voters are uniquely likely to reward or punish a candidate for his or her gun position. This is not to say pro-gun voters are not passionate, but they seem to get a disproportionate share of the coverage.

Sixth, explain how the NRA has moved. I’ve seen some argue against attacking the NRA, suggesting the group’s popularity makes this ineffective among Republicans. I agree the NRA is a more powerful foil with the Democratic base, but we should also give other voters permission to have supported the group in the past. A compelling frame explains the NRA “once supported background checks” but has since “lost its way” as a major Trump donor. We’re not making the NRA political. The group has made itself too political.

Seventh, go beyond beyond mass shootings. Sadly, mass shootings are the usual gun policy conversation starter. But the particulars of each shooting can sometimes lead to a debate over what kind of stronger gun law would have prevented that specific incident. Stronger gun law supporters want to reduce all kinds of gun deaths, from domestic violence and suicides to accidents and homicides, as well as highly public mass shootings. States with stronger gun laws have fewer gun deaths. Furthermore, when you tabulate all gun deaths, the U.S. record is the worst among other high-income countries. All gun deaths are equally tragic, and deserve our attention.

Eighth, reach out to women. For some time, women have been more supportive of stronger gun laws. This isn’t just due to party differences between men and women. In our recent poll, among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, women are more supportive of stronger laws than their male counterparts of the same party. Democratic candidates worried about how their gun position might play should make non-Democratic women the focus of their outreach.

Ninth, take a principled stance. Note that Democrats are now more united than are Republicans (not just on guns, by the way). Yet a Washington Post/ABC News poll recently found a majority of voters think the Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything and is “just against Trump.” Here’s a chance for Democrats to take a clear position. Our voters are ready for it.

Margie Omero is a Democratic pollster and co-host of The Pollsters weekly podcast. You can follow her on Twitter @MargieOmero.