The politics of gun safety has confounded the country for decades. Poll after poll finds solid support for background checks, banning assault rifles, and even licensing. And yet, since the 1994 congressional elections, most in Congress have been wary of passing tough legislation.
Measures to improve background checks for gun ownership are backed by almost the entire public. The last time we polled it in the Harvard-Harris Poll in March 2018, 90 percent favored it. Closing loopholes in background checks is not a controversial issue — it is an issue of national consensus.
Despite this widespread public sentiment, the gun issue has been frozen since President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE passed the Brady Bill and the assault rifle ban. The blocker has been that, with about 40 percent of all households owning guns, motivated gun owners in low-turnout midterm elections have had an outsized influence in flipping swing districts.
Presidents since Clinton have steered clear of gun issues in their early years because of the unexpected yet decisive Democratic shellacking in the 1994 congressional election. But the most recent midterm election, aided by huge spending and social media, broke the prior turnout pattern as record numbers of voters came out to produce a Democratic victory. The key segment that flipped in the midterms — suburban voters (especially moms) — are exactly the ones who support new gun legislation and are most likely to vote for it in 2020 if the current logjam is not broken.
Americans do not want guns banned; 68 percent in the June Harvard-Harris poll rejected restricting gun ownership to only the police and the military. They do want gun ownership to come under the same kind of prudent legislation as for any dangerous product, like a car, a medicine or anything else that can easily threaten lives. Consequently, it’s not a surprise that 69 percent support licensing guns just like autos.
These kinds of numbers go way back. When I worked for Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE on his 2000 presidential campaign, I pushed for him — based on similar poll findings — to support gun licensing. And he did, although the backlash to the idea was then so strong that he dropped featuring the proposal after he made it.
If you think about it, universal background checks of all gun transactions, including gun shows and individual sales, creates an informal licensing system, since every transaction receives government review and is recorded. However, background checks alone do not have the kind of training and testing that would be part of a full licensing program.
There is support for setting gun regulations at the federal level (57 percent), for raising the minimum age for gun ownership to 21 (79 percent), and for enacting “red flag” laws allowing gun removal from people suspected of potential violence (85 percent). There is, in addition, great concern about mental illness, support for reviewing the effects of violent video games to see if there is a connection to school shootings, and support for better training of those involved in school security.
With all this public support for action, though, it is important to look at the actual numbers and what has happened over the last three decades to assess the potential effectiveness of new policies.
Gun violence is actually down significantly from when Clinton passed his gun control measures and there were nearly 20,000 homicides a year. But we have been heading back up in the last few years, bouncing off the lows achieved in the late 1990s. In 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were about 24,000 suicides by gun and 15,000 homicides. Most homicides are not committed in rural areas with rifles but in urban areas with handguns.
The assault rifle ban, which former President Clinton just called upon to be renewed, is also supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. The ban was allowed to expire after 10 years, in 2004, when gun violence was on the decline and a fearful Congress did not want to reopen the debate.
Only about 2 percent of all homicides are committed by rifles of any kind, so the ban could not and did not have a big impact on the overall numbers. However, re-instituting the assault rifle ban could save precious lives by depriving mass shooters of one of their weapons of choice; every second a mass shooter is unimpeded can cost lives until law enforcement arrives. I expect public pressure to mount and potentially be successful here, given the string of recent such shootings.
Gun violence is also highly correlated to age, and I believe age-related legislation could have significant impact on both the overall numbers of homicides and on mass shootings. About 20 percent of murders — and most mass shootings — are committed by those age 21 and under, and about half are committed by those 25 and under. Effective legislation with tough age restrictions could, I believe, save thousands of lives.
Florida recently approved a no-gun-under-21 law, and yet few of the candidates running for president have lined up behind similar national legislation to increase the age limit, and no one has proposed special measures for people 25 and under. Combined with stepped-up background checks, age restrictions could make a real difference on all counts — but they require courage on the part of politicians seeking the support of those young voters.
The National Rifle Association, long an effective roadblock, is in disarray; the public fully believes in taking action now; and we are in a presidential cycle with high voter turnout. Given these new dynamics, I would be stunned if universal background checks and red-flag legislation did not pass with overwhelming support in Congress — and there is potentially room for more, especially the assault rifle ban and no-gun-under-21 rules.
The public does believe in a right to bear arms, but it also believes in allowing those rights to be exercised only with clear limits, safeguards and precautions far stronger than what we have in place today. And now, after all these years, the politics just may be aligning in favor of change, too.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.