The political calculus on the gun issue has changed

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A gun store in Culver City, California. 

President Biden will find it difficult — if not impossible — to get bipartisan support in Congress for new gun control measures, like a new assault weapons ban, which passed with bipartisan support in 1994 and expired ten years later.

Most gun control measures get broad public support, including requiring background checks for private and gun show sales (83 percent in a 2019 poll), a ban on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines (61 percent) and a ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons (57 percent). But what matters politically is intensity of support. Getting gun laws through Congress has always been difficult because of single-issue voting by gun rights supporters.

The gun issue drives their votes; for most other voters, it doesn’t.

Let’s say you take a poll and show a politician that his constituents divide 75 to 25 percent in favor of gun control. The politician knows what will happen if he votes for a gun control law. Maybe 10 percent of the 75 percent majority care enough about the issue to vote for him for that reason alone — but he may lose 20 out of the 25 percent on the other side. Gun owners may be a minority, but many see gun control as a threat to their Second Amendment rights. It drives their votes. They make sure politicians know it.

Single-issue voting helps explain why intensely committed minorities can hold sway over casually committed majorities. “Why are gun owners so politically powerful?” an abortion rights activist once told me in an interview: “There are more uterus owners than gun owners. And when uterus owners begin to vote their issue, we will win.”

Single-issue politics is a sort of blackmail: “We don’t care what your position is on anything else. If you are with us on our issue, we’ll support you. If you are against us, we’ll come after you.”

None of that has changed. But the political calculus has.

Why? Because of political segregation.

Red America and blue America have been moving apart. Democrats and Republicans increasingly live in separate constituencies, if not separate political worlds. In the Republican world, gun rights are still sacrosanct, and many voters remain watchful for any threats. In the Democratic world — far more urban and suburban — single-issue voting to protect gun rights is a much less serious threat.

In a Democratic debate during the last presidential campaign, Beto O’Rourke thrilled liberals and horrified conservatives when he was asked, after a mass shooting in his home town of El Paso Texas, if he would mandate that people give up their assault weapons. “Hell yes!” the former Democratic Congressman responded, drawing cheers from the Democratic audience. “We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans any more.”

When the assault weapons ban was voted on by the House of Representatives in 1994, 46 Republicans voted for it, and 64 Democrats opposed it. It would not have passed without Republican support. Nothing like that could happen now.

Donald Trump has radicalized the Republican Party. Even though Trump lost his bid for re-election last year, the anticipated “blue wave” for Democrats never materialized. Any Republican in Congress who supports new gun laws is likely to face a conservative primary challenger funded by Trump.

Many conservative Democrats who represented southern and rural constituencies were wiped out in the 1994 midterm election when, after 40 years, Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives. That was widely interpreted as the gun rights activists’ revenge for passage of the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill mandating criminal background checks for gun purchasers. Congressional Democrats have been skittish about new gun laws ever since.

That, too, may be changing.

Democratic voters are more uniformly liberal just as Republican voters are more uniformly conservative. Moderates and centrists are diminishing in importance in both parties. Bipartisanship looks more and more like an old-fashioned idea.

Today, new gun laws are likely to be passed only by a straight partisan vote — just like President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan, Obamacare in 2010, and President Trump’s tax cuts in 2017.

The problem is: Straight partisan victories will be nearly impossible in the Senate as long as the filibuster is in force for non-taxing-and-spending legislation — like new gun laws.

The filibuster is supposed to encourage bipartisanship — but given the new hyper-partisan reality, what it really encourages is gridlock.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Donald Trump Federal Assault Weapons Ban Gun control Gun politics in the United States Joe Biden Mass shooting political polarization

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