One reason nothing has changed: Supporters of gun control keep misunderstanding why they fail. They keep asking why a large minority of people passionately oppose gun control, and not why so few people in the public-opinion majority mobilize to support it.
The opponents win, they think, because of undemocratic features of our government, such as the filibuster. Or they blame campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. Or the Supreme Court’s rulings that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns. Or the paranoid fervor of some Republicans.
Many of these explanations have the air of excuses. The justices have, for example, so far erected no obstacles to a ban on guns that opponents call “assault weapons.” Yet even many blue states don’t have such bans. One just failed in Colorado, a state where Democrats hold the governorship and both legislative chambers. The last time the idea got a vote in the U.S. Senate — in 2013, when the Democrats had a majority — it lost 60-40. No filibuster was needed.
In polls, a large fraction of Republican voters say they will support some new gun regulations. What advocates of the regulations often ignore is that this group does not consider it urgent to enact them. So, Republican candidates know they do not need to worry about losing their votes over the issue. They also know that if they go soft, some conservatives who support gun rights will abandon them. And they’re not going to pick up a lot of new supporters to make up for the defectors. The Democrats who consider gun control a priority aren’t going to start voting for Republicans.
If supporters of gun control thought a bit more about their tepid allies, they might ask some additional questions. If stronger gun laws will save tens of thousands of lives, as activists who want those laws insist, why don’t voters act that way? Why won’t Republican voters who back gun control put any pressure on their party?
The answer appears to be that they don’t believe that gun control will make a big difference. In October 2017, right after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history had taken place in Las Vegas, Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans wanted gun laws to “be made more strict.” But it also found that 58 percent of them thought that if new gun controls were passed, they would have little or no effect on mass shootings. A Post-ABC poll in 2021 found that 53 percent of respondents believed that stricter gun control “would not reduce crime.”
This public skepticism is amply justified. Research, such as a Rand Corp. review of the literature, has not found conclusive evidence that the federal assault-weapons ban in effect between 1994 and 2004 had any effect on firearm homicide rates. Expanded background checks have little effect on those rates, either, as supporters of more stringent controls occasionally admit. A very high percentage of guns used in crimes are stolen or purchased on the black market.
A complete and fully enforced ban on guns might substantially reduce gun violence. But it is the stuff of fantasy. Several hundred million guns are in civilian possession in the United States. No country has ever banned or confiscated guns when they were that prevalent. Banning civilian possession, per Gallup, has the support of less than one-third of Americans. Support for that draconian idea has been falling for decades. It would surely and rightly be struck down by the Supreme Court if it ever became law.
The items on the conventional gun-control agenda, then, fall into two categories: the extremely difficult to achieve but ineffective, and the possibly effective but even less achievable.
None of this means we should just give up on reducing gun violence. But it suggests we should consider pursuing that goal in a different way. We could better enforce existing gun laws, such as those governing false reports on background checks and proxy purchases, without passing new legislation or adding to the burdens on law-abiding gun owners. We should continue to refine red-flag laws that attempt to keep guns from dangerous individuals after they have received due process. An increased police presence in high-crime areas would also be helpful.
Gun-control advocates are not wrong to feel frustrated. We ought to do something different than we have been doing. But they are themselves, unintentionally, part of the problem. In recent years, they have taken to condemning politicians who offer only “thoughts and prayers” after bloodshed but do nothing else to stop it. What they are doing instead is calling for the same hopeless agenda and raging at their enemies. Is that really so much better?