Here’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while: why do people who generally avoid talking about politics or taking a public position on political issues make an exception for the gun control debate? This observation is just based on anecdotal evidence — what I’ve seen with my own friends & acquaintances, so maybe you’ve experienced something different. But I’d venture to guess that if you start to pay attention to it, many of you will notice the same phenomenon among your group of friends & acquaintances as well.
For purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on Facebook, just to keep things simple. It gives us a big sample group in a semi-public forum. What I’ve seen there is that other than a very small handful of friends, most people avoid talking about politics or commenting on political posts. This is understandable, because people generally come to Facebook for simple entertainment. It’s a break in stresses of the day, a chance to catch up with friends & family, to see their photos, find out what they did last night, etc. Political posts are annoying to a lot of people. (And I’ll admit, having a hard time reeling in my passion for the subject I used to post a lot about politics on Facebook. But I realized how obnoxious it could be, so now I rarely post about politics at all, other than to link to this blog).
Another reason many people may not post about politics on social media is that it could interfere with their work lives. Whether they’re an employee of a company that might not appreciate their political views, or whether they’re a business owner or freelancer who’s concerned that potential clients might be turned off by their political opinions, this is an obvious reason that people might avoid posting about politics on social media.
So, the vast majority of my friends & acquaintances don’t post about politics on Facebook, and my impression is that it’s largely not because they don’t have opinions, but because of some combination of the two aforementioned reasons. (And because you may be wondering due to my own obvious political leanings, I’ll share with you that my friends & acquaintances are pretty evenly spread out across the political spectrum).
But here’s what I find so curious: whenever the country has a particularly high profile mass shooting, a fairly large number of my friends & acquaintances will post articles or comments arguing in favor of new gun safety laws. So that’s where my question arises: why do so many people make an exception to their general “no politics” standard for this particular issue?
To some degree this happens because people feel the urgency of this issue in a way they don’t with so many others. But the much larger part of the answer seems to be that they don’t categorize this as a political issue. They see it as just a matter of common sense – people (and in the most notorious instance: young children) are getting killed, and we need to do something about it. But the paradox here is that the topic of what to do about guns – guns rights, gun laws – is probably the single most political issue in the country today.
The Gun Debate is Probably the Most Polarizing Issue in the Country
Among the Public
A recent article in the NY Times Upshot section illuminates just how vastly divided the country is on the subject of guns. They authors looked at 2016 electoral maps broken down by gun-owning households vs those that do not own a gun:
In every state but Vermont – perhaps the most liberal state in the country, but one where many, including Bernie Sanders, support gun rights – voters who reported living in a gun-owning household overwhelmingly backed Donald J. Trump.
The opposite is true for voters who said they did not live in a home with a gun. In all but one state that could be measured, voters overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton. (The exception was West Virginia; not enough data existed for Wyoming.)
Over all, gun-owning households (roughly a third in America) backed Mr. Trump by 63 percent to 31 percent, while households without guns backed Mrs. Clinton, 65 percent to 30 percent, according to SurveyMonkey data.
No other demographic characteristic created such a consistent geographic split.
And the divide is not just about gun ownership. Americans are also deeply polarized over the question of gun regulations, as a recent FiveThirthyEight.com piece explains. In 2016, Pew Polls asked Democratic and Republican respondents their opinions on 10 key issues. On the question of which was more important: protecting the right to purchase a gun or controlling gun ownership, the results were more polarized than any other issue but one. The difference between the parties was greater on that question than on health care, climate change or abortion. The only question that showed a bigger disparity between the parties (and keep in mind this poll was taken in 2016) was a question about building a wall along the Mexican border.
As the piece notes, polls do show that Republicans are open to some specific gun safety measures, such as background checks for private gun sales. But Republican voting behavior seems to align with their feelings on the broader issue of gun control, which Republicans are overwhelmingly against.
And, along these lines, back in 2012, FiveThirtyEight.com noted that whether or not someone owns a gun is the most powerful predictor of which Party they align themselves with:
Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics.
This is similar to the findings described in the Upshot article above.
And there’s an even more interesting difference between members of the two parties when it comes to gun regulations. Even on the rare items where there is some agreement about a desire for new regulation, most Republicans don’t actually think such regulations would be effective in reducing gun violence. For example, a June 2016 Quinnipiac poll showed that 90% of Republicans supported the idea of expanding background checks to cover all gun sales, but only 42% of Republicans actually thought it would reduce gun violence. On the other hand, 98% of Democrats supported that proposal, and 86% said they thought it would be effective.
So this isn’t just a tug-of-war over whose rights and freedoms should be respected (i.e. the right to own a gun vs the right to feel safe assembling in public). There’s a disagreement here over the fundamental facts, in that the two sides have very different views over whether new regulations would even fix the issue. So Democrats keep calling for new laws, which seem like such an overwhelmingly obvious, common sense solution in their view. But Republicans not only oppose the infringement on their freedom, but believe it’s being pushed on them for no purpose at all. Those are very difficult positions to reconcile or on which to find compromise.
So among the American people, the issue of gun ownership and gun regulation is clearly one of the most – if not the most – polarizing issues that exists today. This same level of polarization also exists at the Congressional level.
Among Elected Officials
Though media coverage often presents the lack of new gun safety legislation as a failure of “Congress” generally, the lack of any new laws in this area is due entirely to Republicans in Congress. That is not a subjective assertion. It’s a clear, undeniable fact – one I imagine Republicans would proudly agree with. According to a 2016 CBS article, more than 100 gun control proposals have failed in Congress since 2011.
Every one of those measures failed at the hands of the GOP. Whether it was the Republican controlled House that blocked the bill, or a Republican filibuster in the Senate, it’s Republicans in Congress who oppose gun legislation. That’s not to say that every Democrat supports every bill every time, or that every Republican opposes every bill every time. But each time, inevitably, there are enough GOP “nos” to keep the bill from passing – or, when they control the chamber, from even coming up for a vote.
Occasionally, when media attention gets especially focused and/or public outrage gets especially loud after certain shootings, Republicans will make some noises toward passing some small, symbolic gun safety measure. But they also always make sure to note that we should take our time, not act “too soon” after the tragedy and politicize it – and other various platitudes for slowing the process down. Then they just wait it out until the outcry dies down and eventually move on without doing anything, assuming the media & the public will quiet down, which they always do. This is what happened after the shooting in Las Vegas this past October in which more than 50 people were killed.
Republicans pretended for a while like they were willing to pass legislation to ban “bump stocks” which the Las Vegas shooter used to alter his gun to allow him to shoot so many rounds so quickly. Legislation to do this would have been a very minor step, which in no way would have affected anyone’s ability to purchase or own guns. But even on this, Republicans hemmed and hawed and made excuses until media & public attention moved on to other things. No new legislation was passed. And just a month later, after a mass shooting at a church in Texas, no one even bothered to pretend that new gun safety legislation might be a possibility in Republican-controlled Washington.
A look at which lawmakers the National Rifle Association (NRA) donates to helps further illustrate just how partisan the issue of guns has become on Capitol Hill. The New York Times looked at NRA donations over House & Senate members’ entire careers and put together a list of the top ten recipients in both the House and the Senate. In both chambers the top ten lists were made up of only Republicans. You can see the list here.
The highest ranked Democrat in the House is Sanford Bishop, who ranks 41st in career donations from the N.R.A. Among the top 100 House recipients, 95 are Republican. In the Senate, the top two Democrats are Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who rank 52nd and 53rd — behind every Republican but Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
MarketWatch put together a list looking at NRA funds just for the year 2016. This list is a Top 20 list, combining both the House and the Senate. Again, every member on this list is a Republican. The only Congressional Democrat to make the top 25 is Bernie Sanders:
Gun-rights groups donated nearly all their money in 2016 to candidates running for president, leaders in Congress and candidates in key Senate races. More than 98% of the contributions went to Republicans.
So, any way you slice it, whether among our elected officials or among the voters, gun control/gun ownership turns out to be one of the most divisive issues of our time. So why is it that people who generally keep their politics to themselves (at least in public forums) feel comfortable speaking out about this of all topics?
I’m genuinely curious to hear your thoughts on this question, so please share in the comments!