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Senator Mitch McConnell speaks at the 2014 National Rifle Association convention.

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Are Guns the Issue on Which Republicans Are Moving the Farthest to the Right?

Breaking down polls by party affiliation shows how GOPers' increasingly conservative views on gun laws drive the national split on a critical question.

The polls are in, and on the question of gun policy, they are split. The Washington Post and ABC News found this week that a slim plurality of Americans think gun rights are more important than new measures to prevent gun violence, echoing a recent CNN survey showing a majority oppose stricter laws. The results of a new Associated Press poll, by contrast, have a slight majority supporting new laws.

One picture that emerges from the collected opinion data is that of a country at loggerheads over a life-and-death issue. It’s only when looking at the breakout numbers that another story emerges: Opposition to reform is being sustained by a rightward tilt among Republicans.


Though the size of the jump varies, across the three polls The Trace looked at, fewer respondents identifying as Republicans supported new gun laws than they did during the last round of surveys on the question in 2013. Strikingly, the Washington Post/ABC News Poll also found that the number of Republicans who think protecting gun rights is more important than enacting stricter gun laws rose by 13 percentage points, from 58 percent of Republicans in 2013 to 71 percent in 2015.

The picture becomes even more interesting when other hot button issues are added to the mix. On gay marriage, abortion, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Republican views have either largely held steady over the years or moved toward a new national consensus, as in the case of party members’ leftward drift on gay marriage. Guns are the outlier. Over the past two years, gun laws are the only one of the policies or social attitudes in this comparison that lost Republican support.

Let’s look first at immigration reform, where Republican support has jumped in the past year, in line with increases from independents and Democrats, and possibly due to increasing diversity throughout the country.

Republican support for gay marriage has also increased as advocates for same-sex rights won victories in courts and legislatures, giving a big policy change the air of inevitability.

Positions on abortion, meanwhile, have remained largely static over the past 14 years. In fact, the Washington Post and ABC has not bothered to poll opinions on pro-choice versus pro-life positions since 2013.

The bottom line: In contrast to surveys on other issues, polls on guns indicate that popular opinion is shaped by increasing Republican conservatism, especially as the Bush era drew to a close. Only around mass shootings does Republican opposition to stricter gun laws wane, and even then, the effects are usually fleeting.

[Photo: AP Photo/AJ Mast]