THE BLOG
01/12/2016 02:54 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2017

A Partisan Culture, Not a Gun Culture

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Last week President Obama took modest, but politically courageous, executive actions on guns. Despite the well-established popularity of strengthening background checks, the move was panned by the Republican Speaker and most Republican Presidential candidates. But there is far more to the contentious debate on guns than simply a favor/oppose question on any one policy, and more than discussions of a "gun culture" that gun law advocates supposedly don't get. Partisan polarization, and broader worries about security, likely drive public opinion more than gun ownership.

(Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns before it, have been clients of my Democratic polling firm, Momentum Analysis, although the views in this article are wholly my own. I've also written extensively here at Huffington Post on gun polling.)

Support for background checks continues to be nearly unanimous.

This should really no longer be in dispute. Sometimes the figure nears 90%, sometimes it can be as low as the mid-70s. It's very high, and has been very high for some time. With numbers like that, even Republicans and gun-owners are also consistently in support.

Even when mentioning Obama, support remains strong.

Political-watchers would be forgiven for assuming a sentence including "Barack Obama," "gun," and "executive orders" would be massively controversial. But check your assumptions at the door. The latest CNN/ORC poll shows two-thirds -- and even 51% of Republicans -- support Obama's actions on guns. A recent GQR survey for Americans for Responsible Solutions (a pro-gun law group) shows a similar pattern, with slightly higher numbers (73% overall, 56% of Republicans).

Although, yes, many worry about safety, and are pessimistic about efficacy.

I've written extensively about the dangers of over-emphasizing the long-term tracking on guns by either Pew or Gallup. Pew's question uses the anachronism "gun control," which, while sadly still common parlance, is never used by gun law advocates as it's been shown to dampen support for stronger laws. Gallup's three-pronged question ("do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?"), and others like it, ask respondents to imagine what "stricter" gun laws might look like. We don't know if respondents are thinking about background checks, a registry, confiscation or something else.

But gun law advocates should view with empathy the pessimism many feel that even popular, detailed, stronger gun laws can reduce gun deaths. The recent CNN/ORC poll shows nearly six in ten feel the President's actions "will not be effective," despite the strong support for them. In October Gallup showed more feel a new background check law would reduce the number of mass shootings "not at all" (31%) than "a great deal" (19%). A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed slightly more feel "encouraging more people to carry guns legally" is a better way to respond to terrorism (47%) than "enacting stricter gun control laws" (42%). CBS News/NYT polling showed voters across party lines think mental health screening and treatment would "do more to prevent gun violence" than would stronger gun laws.

Beyond straightforward gun law opposition, or broader concerns about government efficacy, these numbers reflect despondency over the steady drumbeat of gun deaths, and anxiety about an unstable world. Indeed, almost three-fourths believe mass shootings are now a normal part of American life, and far more now than in the mid-90s say they own guns for self-defense rather than hunting. But pessimism and skepticism can co-exist with support for stronger gun laws. In 2013, Pew found majorities felt "stronger gun laws" (unspecified) would reduce mass shooting deaths, reduce accidental gun deaths, and also "make it more difficult for people to protect homes and families."

We should be mindful to not paint all gun law skepticism with broad brushstrokes like "cultural" or "politically charged." And given the rest of the gun polling, this pessimism -- while important to acknowledge and understand -- is not politically insurmountable.

But the "intensity gap" is mischaracterized. And perceptions of the politics have eclipsed the reality.

Conventional wisdom suggests gun law opponents overpower advocates with their intensity, but the data say otherwise. In the CNN/ORC poll, strong support for the President's actions (43%) far exceeds strong opposition (21%). While Gallup showed those who want "less strict" gun laws are particularly likely to say the issue will drive their vote, this is misleading; there are far more who want stronger laws than weaker ones. In fact, there are three times as many "more strict" gun law voters who say it will drive their vote as there are "less strict" voters who say the same.

The strong opposition that does exist is a recent phenomenon, mostly fueled by Republicans and trends of partisan polarization. In 2014 Pew showed Republican prioritization of protecting "the right of Americans to own guns" began to spike in 2007, while it's been fairly stable for Democrats. Gallup recently showed an increasing number of Americans feel guns make homes safer, but this mostly comes from a dramatic increase among Republicans and independents. Along with this partisan shift, a majority of Americans in an October NBC/WSJ poll saw Democrats as "outside the mainstream" on guns--more than on any other issue. This vocal opposition appears in broadly-written questions about "protecting gun rights" or the political debate. Recall support for stronger background checks, and even the recent executive actions, is strong, bipartisan, and consistent.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, more are voting with their feet and taking themselves out of the gun game, despite easy access to guns and the increase in the perception of guns' safety. The prestigious General Social Survey shows gun ownership continues to drop, with now fewer than a third of households owning guns. It's striking that decades ago, when about half of households had guns, support for a full handgun ban reached as high as 60%. A toxic political dialogue -- and not gun ownership itself -- is the real obstacle to stronger laws.

At Tuesday's State of the Union an empty chair will remind us of lives lost to gun violence. Let's use this as a reminder of what we share as Americans -- concern for others' safety, support for keeping guns out of dangerous hands, and a weariness of our divisive politics.