A trio of liberal pundit/scholars argues that majorities support various forms of gun control and do not get their way because of our political system’s increasingly pronounced anti-democratic features.
I’m not sure they’re right about public opinion. They cite a poll that shows a 54 percent majority in favor of a ban on assault weapons. Gallup has found majority opposition, and the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has found plurality opposition. I grant, though, that other gun regulations that consistently have majority support in the polls don’t get anywhere.
But they overlook one reason for that pattern that has nothing to do with redistricting, the filibuster, or the overrepresentation of rural states in the Senate: the intensity of voter sentiment. It seems to me obvious that there are a lot more people who will vote against a politician than will vote for him on the basis of his support for gun regulations, and politicians know it.
One reason for the asymmetric intensity on the issue is that some supporters of gun regulation don’t think it would do much good. Quinnipiac last year found 59 percent support for banning assault weapons, but only 47 percent thought it would do much to reduce gun violence (49 percent didn’t think it would). A CBS/New York Times poll found that 26 percent of the public thought “stricter gun control” would “help a lot” to prevent gun violence. Public ambivalence on guns shows up in other ways: An NBC/WSJ poll taken in the last few weeks found that 50 percent of people worry that the government will go too far in restricting gun rights, while 45 percent worry it won’t go far enough.
In 2013, when Congress last voted on assault weapons, Colorado had two Democratic senators. From the Census statistics, it’s not an especially rural state. Both senators voted against the proposal.
As long as democracy is representative rather than plebiscitary, the side of a debate that is more intense in its conviction is going to have an advantage.