Understanding the Country’s Choice on Guns

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In a heated post late Friday, I argued that we’ve made our choice about guns as a society. Some people called this defeatist. But it’s not. I’m not saying the choice can’t change at some point in the future. I’m just stating the obvious, which is that the choice is settled and un-conflicted: no amount of massacres or scales of body counts or simply annual numbers of people killed by firearms matter. The ability to have unfettered access to guns is an absolute. This is confirmed by a substantial amount of public opinion research that shows not only that pro-gun sentiment has increased since the Newton Massacre in 2012 but that by many measures it has crossed a historic threshold where ‘gun rights’ has become the dominant US position.

This is a key point.

According to Pew, the number of people who say it’s more important to protect ‘gun rights’ than control gun ownership finally became the majority opinion after Newtown. Roper meanwhile has parallel data, albeit using a slightly different question to get the broadest measure of the country’s attitude toward guns.

But the full picture only becomes clear when you look at the internals of these polls.

The real story is that guns have become a key part of Republican partisan self-identification since the dawn of the Obama era. Republicans and Democrats have seen the gun control issue differently for decades. But not that differently. Democrats strongly supported gun control. And Republicans were basically divided on the issue. As Pew’s Carroll Doherty noted in this Pew write-up, “as recently as 2007, 48% of Republicans and GOP leaners said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 47% said it was more important to protect gun rights.”

The dawn of the Obama era brought a transformation that you can see powerfully in this chart of Pew data over the last quarter century.

The politics transformed because of a dramatic shift in opinion on the part of Republicans that began at the outset of the Obama presidency. Democrats have remained more or less unchanged in their position, at least within a band that has been broadly stable since the early 90s. This probably overlaps with the dramatic increase in gun and ammunition purchases after President Obama’s election.

Going slightly beyond what the data tells us, it seems clear that being pro-gun has become a key element of Republican self-identification. That is to say, it’s not just that many Republicans’ views have changed since Obama took office, but that being pro-gun has become an elemental part of what it means to be a Republican.

Some related questions are less clear cut. For instance, the belief that more guns make us safer rather than less safe (a proposition that appears to be belied by all available social science) has grown more widely. Notably, that belief has grown dramatically in recent years among African Americans.

It seems reasonable to anticipate that if more people come to believe that more guns mean more safety that opposition to gun control will eventually fall in line with those views. So far, it hasn’t.

But the basic point is clear. The politics of guns has transformed dramatically because starting at the time Barack Obama was elected President, Republicans became dramatically more committed to the right to own guns.

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