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What polling on guns does (and doesn’t) tell us about public attitudes

If attitudes on guns started dictating elections, some Republicans would likely shift. Until then, there’s a limit as to how much the polls matter.


For those hoping to see new laws to prevent gun violence, there’s a lot to like in the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll, which was conducted after this week’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

The survey covered a fair amount of ground, but among the topline results were lopsided attitudes:

  • 88 percent of the public supports background checks on gun sales.
  • 75 percent of Americans are on board with a national gun sale database.
  • 77 percent support a ban on assault-style weapons.

At face value, a poll like this might seem like great news for reformers and terrible news for Republicans. After all, it’s an election year. Which elected officials want to take a stand against an idea that 88 percent of Americans support?

The answer, it turns out, is lots of them.

Part of the problem with polling like this is that it doesn’t always measure the intensity and importance of these opinions. Rather, they reflect preferences. Yes, nearly 9 in 10 Americans want background checks on gun purchases. That number has been relatively consistent for many years, across many polls, and it includes plenty of conservative and Republican voters.

But that doesn’t mean those same Americans are prepared to base their votes on those preferences.

After the massacre at Sandy Hook nearly a decade ago, the public demand for change seemed overwhelming. The Obama White House leaned into the issue. Polls were lopsided. A modest, bipartisan bill came together. The pieces were finally in place — right up until a Republican filibuster derailed the legislation.

At the next available opportunity, against a backdrop of a strong economy and low unemployment, voters rendered their verdict — and gave the GOP total control of Congress. The fact that the party had derailed a background-check bill didn’t make much of a difference: Many of the same folks who said they supported the idea either voted for Republican candidates anyway or didn’t bother to vote at all.

Years later, the polls haven’t changed, and neither has the political calculus made by GOP officials. The New York Times reported this week:

The calculation behind Republicans’ steadfast opposition to any new gun regulations — even in the face of the kind of unthinkable massacre that occurred Tuesday at an elementary school in Texas — is a fairly simple one for Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. Asked Wednesday what the reaction would be from voters back home if he were to support any significant form of gun control, the first-term Republican had a straightforward answer: “Most would probably throw me out of office,” he said.

There’s a school of thought that says money is the motivating factor: Republicans get significant financial support from the gun lobby, so GOP policymakers ignore the polls and listen to the folks who help bankroll their campaigns.

But let’s not overlook the other factors at play: Republican politics has reached the point at which resistance to gun reforms is foundational. If the United States had public financing of campaigns tomorrow, much of the GOP would continue to fight just as hard against Democratic proposals — because they’d fear a backlash from their base and conservative media that’d put their careers in jeopardy.

If public attitudes on guns started dictating elections, some Republicans would likely shift accordingly. Until then, there’s a limit as to how much the polls matter.