One Reason We Haven't Passed Gun Reform: The Senate

By Colin McAuliffe (@ColinJMcAuliffe)

The lack of action to stem gun violence is one of the most tragic consequences of the dysfunction in our political system, and over the last several weeks there has been another string of mass shootings connected to white supremacist and misogynist ideologies. Much of the lack of action can be explained by the simple fact that Republican leadership has no interest whatsoever in protecting the public’s health or safety. That’s not the whole story however, and like most issues, American’s views on gun control are fairly complex. 

We explore this using a survey of 2,000 adults conducted by Pew Research in August 2016, which contained a battery of questions on various gun control proposals. Pew makes a lot of their survey microdata available to the public (which you can get from their website), and we used this to model opinions in each state using a method called multilevel regression and poststratification (MRP). The state-level estimates of support for each issue are shown in the interactive map above. 

State-level issue support is important to consider, since Senate malapportionment massively skews who is represented in government. We can summarize the role of political geography on an issue by issue basis by comparing national support (the number that’s typically reported in polls) to the support in the median state. Support in the median state is computed by rank-ordering the state-level estimates and taking the 25th most supportive state. This can roughly be interpreted as support in the pivotal state needed for a senate majority. The Senate is biased in favor of white populations and areas with low population density, so progressive issues that are polarized along these lines will be heavily penalized in the senate.

The least popular item that Pew polled was a question asking if controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights (the question reads in full, “What do you think is more important – to protect the right of Americans to own guns, OR to control gun ownership?”. The zero-sum framing of the gun debate did worse than any specific gun policy, polling at 48% nationwide. This item dropped a full 5 points to 43% in the median state, taking a bigger geographic penalty than any other item. As a point of reference, Hillary Clinton won 51% of the national two party vote, but only 48% of the two party vote in the median state. To the extent possible, progressives should focus on specific policies, rather than a more broad discussion. This is in line with a long line of scholarship showing voters to be liberal on specific policies but conservative philosophically.

This situation is not unique to gun control; many progressive policy goals not only face large geographic penalties but also take a hit when they are framed without specific policy details. For example, we recently found that voters support decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings when we tell them that this means that such crossings would be treated as civil rather than criminal infractions. Conservative media outlets do their best to push the discourse away from policy and towards narrative that inflame racial animus and cultural grievance because ultimately this is an effective strategy that plays especially well with the people who are over represented in the senate. 


Bans on high capacity magazines and “assault style” weapons poll close to 50-50, with relatively small geographic penalties. While other polls put the assault weapons ban at a higher level of favorability, especially in several contested congressional districts, it’s not clear that such bans actually go far enough to reduce gun violence. 

Presently private gun sales are not subject to background checks, which is sometimes called the gun show loophole. Closing this loophole is extremely popular and does not face any meaningful geographic penalty in opinion. This policy, as well as creating a federal database of gun sales should be obvious and uncontroversial, though not cure-all solutions to the gun problem in the US.

From the high levels of support for banning gun sales to people with mental illness and people on no-fly lists, it seems safe to infer that the public wants to keep guns out of the hands of people who are perceived to be dangerous. However, both of these particular policies manage to be both too broad and too narrow at the same time. 

Mental illness catch-all term that encapsulates a large number of conditions, many of which do not increase the risk of violent behavior. Mental illness is often brought up by conservatives to deflect and muddy the waters in the wake of a mass shooting. This is a problem for many reasons, including the fact that people with mental illness are much more likely to harm themselves with a gun than they are to harm someone else.

Banning gun sales to people on no-fly lists sounds reasonable on its face, but the process of getting on a no-fly list is opaque with little room for appeal. A no fly list also excludes many people who are dangerous, in particular domestic abusers who have a high propensity for gun violence. 

Red Flag laws, which were not polled by Pew but were polled recently by Data for Progress, and are strongly supported by the general public resolve many of these concerns. Red flag laws establish a process where a court can temporarily remove firearms from someone who is at risk of harming themselves or others. Removal of firearms is important, since preventing the purchase of guns is not enough in a country which already has hundreds of millions of guns floating around. 

In some of our charts we use “two-way support”, excluding “don’t know.” For this work, the denominator includes both “don’t know,” and oppose.

Colin McAuliffe (@ColinJMcAuliffe) is a co-founder of Data for Progress.

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