Polls Show Declining Power of Gun Lobby

Gun Lobby's Declining Pull
By Glenn Hurowitz

Even in the wake of a shooting as horrific as the Virginia Tech massacre, the gun lobby still looms very large in Washington. Neither the congressional leadership nor any of the leading presidential candidates have indicated that they're going to bring up gun control legislation that could prevent guns from getting into the hands of people like Cho Seung-Hui - or the criminals who used guns to kill 11,624 Americans in 2004 alone. "I hope there's not a rush to do anything," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
It's not that most Democrats think that common sense gun control measures don't make sense. It's that they've bought into the notion (peddled aggressively by the National Rifle Association) that any support at all for gun control is political suicide.  
It's an old Washington trick: if you can't win a policy debate on the merits, convince politicians that a certain policy will help them get elected. And the NRA has been a master at this gambit. During the 12 years in which Republicans controlled Congress, lots of pro-gun candidates won big with the NRA's vocal support.
But are those victories actually attributable to the gun issue - or were there other factors at work as well?
Public opinion data suggests that the gun lobby has played only a very small role in determining election outcomes; indeed, there's a strong indication that support for reasonable gun control measures actually boosts performance at the polls, even in relatively conservative districts.

Polls show that support  for stronger gun control is and has always been strong.
Even in the South, the Rocky Mountain region, and rural areas, where gun ownership is most common, support for gun control is high: there's no geographical region of the United States where fewer than two thirds of people support stricter gun laws. Even 57 percent of rural Americans support them.
Perhaps that's because gun owners are as aware as other Americans of the need to make sure that criminals can't get their hands on weapons and that cop killer bullets and assault rifles aren't necessary for hunting. As President Clinton famously observed, deer don't wear bulletproof vests. Indeed, support for gun control is only 13 percent lower among gun owners than the general population.
It's doubtful that even many hard core gun supporters are actually willing to cross party lines based on that one issue: like other voters, they tend to make up their minds based on a candidate's party affiliation (Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats), economic conditions, and a candidate's personal characteristics, and not primarily on a candidate's issue positions. It's true that there are some voters who will switch their votes on the basis of the gun control issue, but gun supporters are largely cancelled out by ardent gun opponents. Support for gun control has helped Democrats make gains among formerly Republican suburbanites, especially women.
To be sure, the NRA does consistently manage to outspend and out-organize the gun control movement. In 2006, it spent between three and four million dollars to elect its candidates, more than 20 times what its opponents were able to muster.
Perhaps its strategy is best summarized by a 1993 memo that was leaked to the press:  "We may not win a particular election but our methods have an extremely efficient `political cost exchange ratio' making it exceedingly expensive, difficult and unpleasant for the target to remain in office," the memo said. "Victory springs from imparting excruciating political pain in unrelenting political attacks on a single politician as an example to others."
But its ability to inflict that kind of pain has actually declined significantly since those words were written. Due to a decade of financial mismanagement and decreased attention to gun issues with the rise of terrorism concerns, the NRA is only directly contributing about half of what it once did. Meanwhile, total spending on politics has grown massively, meaning that the NRA's relative impact is far smaller than it once was. The NRA was at one point the fifth biggest spender on politics of any industry or organization; it's now dropped out of the top fifty. The Humane Society of America (a sometimes NRA opponent) is now spending more on politics than the NRA.
Partly as a result, the NRA's ability to swing elections to its candidates is quite weak, and it never was that strong in the first place. In the 2006 elections, out of its top 81 races, it won only 42 percent; in the 11 races where it spent the lion's share of the money, it lost nine of them, including gubernatorial elections in Colorado and Wisconsin, where gun ownership rates are among the highest in the country.  
These data come down to one thing: Democrats can start considering the merits of gun control and not just its politics.

Glenn Hurowitz, president of Democratic Courage.com, is the author of Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party.

Tags: blacksburg, clinton, Crime, Democrats, gun control, guns, hunting, massacre, national rifle association, NRA, Pelosi, polls, public opinion, Reid, shooting, virginia tech, voting (all tags)

Comments

13 Comments

Re: Polls Show Declining Power of Gun Lobby

The power of the gun lobby has never rested on their numbers, but rather on their committment. NRA types vote on this one issue. You can agree with them on 99 out of 100 issues, but if the one issue they don't agree with you on is gun control, then they will vote against you. There are very few proponents of gun laws that are as committed to their side of the issue.

by mrgavel 2007-04-27 07:52AM | 0 recs
Wisconsin: Real votes, not cooked polls

76% to add the following to our State Constitution in 1998.

Right to keep and bear arms. SECTION 25. The people have the right to keep and bear arms for
security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose.

The measure carried every one of our 72 Counties, with 56% in Dane (Madison), 63% in Milwaukee, and up to 92% in the northwoods.

County by County totals, Map

You're entitled to your opinions, but not to make up "facts," ie "there's no geographical region of the United States where fewer than two thirds of people support stricter gun laws."

by benmasel 2007-04-27 09:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Wisconsin: Real votes, not cooked polls

  That "fact" is dubious, but you're conflating the right to bear arms with gun control.  They're not the same.  It's possible that both gun regulation and the right to bear arms are very popular.

by cilerder86 2007-04-27 09:50AM | 0 recs
Possile, yes.

Reality, no.

by benmasel 2007-04-27 02:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Possile, yes.

   Prove it.  You criticized him for not backing up his statement with numbers.

by cilerder86 2007-04-27 09:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Possile, yes.

My (typod) "possible" acknowledges there's ultimately no real numbers. Even if there were, they'd be constantly in flux. I've no doubt support for increased restriction is greater today than 2 weeks ago, and will likely be less once the media saturation of VA Tech fades.

My subjective impression that support for further controls in Wisconsin is usually less than 50% comes from traipsing around the State campaigning last year.

by benmasel 2007-04-28 10:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Polls Show Declining Power of Gun Lobby

Yes, the poll reference here is the General Social Survey, which asked 46,510 Americans the question:

Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: "There should be more legal restrictions on handguns in our society."

70.6 percent said they agreed. Region-by-region data supplied to me by the GSS shows that support is pretty high in all regions.

by Democratic Courage 2007-04-27 01:52PM | 0 recs
What are your #s

for Northern Wisconsin?

by benmasel 2007-04-27 02:30PM | 0 recs
Re: What are your #s

I have a feeling that a geographical area as small as "Northern Wisconsin" isn't represented in the numbers.  I'm sure it would be the entire Midwest that Wisconsin would fall under.  

I believe he's speaking of regions of the country, not regions of a state.  

I'm sure you could find small towns in Alabama, population <500 where 90% of voters don't support additional gun control.

Numbers get crazy as you lower the sample size.

by joshuaj83 2007-04-28 03:24AM | 0 recs
A leftist fantasyland

Nice try. But who conducted this trumped-up poll ? However, here are some legitimate mainstream polls folks may be familiar with that were taken in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy:

A FOX News poll last week found that only 19 percent of Americans believe tougher gun laws can help stop shootings like the one at Virginia Tech. A 71 percent majority disagrees.

A Zogby poll indicated that 59 percent do not think stricter gun control policies would help prevent tragedies like the one at Virginia Tech, and only 36 percent believe they would help.

An AP-Ipsos poll showed that 49 percent think gun laws should remain as they are or be made less strict than they are now, and 47 percent that they should be more strict.

This nation has more than 20,000 laws on the books restricting firearms.

The answer isn't more gun laws; it's less gun-free zones. When was the last time a maniacal murderer stormed a police station or U.S. military base? I didn't think so. They only strike where guns aren't.
As for the NRA, we have more than 4 million members nationwide and are doing just fine, thank you.

by NRA4ever 2007-04-27 08:57PM | 0 recs
Go to hell

I despise the work the NRA is doing and the murders it helps to facilitate.
If there weren't so much guns allowed in the US, thousands of children would not have been mistakenly assumed as being burglars and subsequently being shot in their home by their very own parents.

If you don't allow guns to be widely owned in a society, you have ridiculously low numbers of homicides, in contrast to the US.

Blood of thousands of innocent people is sticking on your hands and you are even proud of it.

If a near family member of you is being killed by guns, you will understand.

Go away now and stop spewing your hatred on this blog

by cwkraus4clark 2007-04-28 01:36AM | 0 recs
Talk about hatred...

"despise." "spewing."

by benmasel 2007-04-28 10:57AM | 0 recs
Re: A leftist fantasyland

The title of your post is kind of ironic.

The "trumped up poll" is the General Social Survey, one of the most highly respected and trusted of academic public polling surveys. It is basically the standard by which others are judged, and has been running (and improved) continuously for decades. Unlike media polls (the ones you site), the GSS benefits from open collaboration among researchers, all of whom work to produce as definitive a measure of social variables as possible.

Your reference to the FOX, Zogby and AP polls is like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Pinto. Those polls are not academic quality and only serve the purpose of providing the mainstream media corporations "news" to report. Quite often, media polls make errors in methodology and/or interpretation.

The "leftist fantasyland" that Glenn is living in happens to be what a lot of us call "reality."

by cdale77 2007-05-02 01:19PM | 0 recs

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