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For 2016 Republicans, There’s Not Really Much to Debate on Gun Laws

Political scientists explain why the establishment candidates won’t budge on their conservative gun platforms.

In Thursday night’s Republican debate in Charleston, South Carolina, the sixth of the 2016 campaign, gun policy got more air time than it has in any of the party’s face-offs this cycle. Senator Marco Rubio questioned Governor Chris Christie’s past support for assault rifle limits, Christie parried by pointing to modest gun reform bills he has vetoed, and Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump took turns asserting their perfect fealty to gun rights. In the end it was clear why the issue had barely come up in the prior debates. On guns, there’s not much for the party’s candidates to argue about. 

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose no-compromise stance on gun rights has earned him the endorsement of right-wing group Gun Owners of America, summed up last night’s back-and-forth quite succinctly: in a Republican primary, “unless you are clinically insane, you are going to say you support the Second Amendment,” he said, before going on to tout his GOA endorsement.

Zingers aside, Cruz is right. The party’s four top-tier establishment candidates — Rubio, Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Ohio governor John Kasich  — have all staked positions on other hot-button issues, such as immigration, entitlement reform, and the Common Core, that allow them to draw distinctions between each other and paint the insurgent contenders as too extreme to win the White House. But when talking about gun laws and gun rights, they largely strike the same note, with each avidly showcasing their Second Amendment bona fides.

Last night, Rubio reiterated that he is “convinced” that Obama wants to rescind the Second Amendment. (In a recent campaign ad, Rubio dramatically cautions that Obama’s plan is to “take away our guns.”) Christie recited his recent pro-gun rights record in the state, which includes both his vetoes of new gun safety measures and pardons for several gun owners who had violated state law. Bush stated, as he has before, that “the first impulse of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is to take rights away from law-abiding citizens.” (Last month, Bush also boasted about receiving the NRA’s “Statesman of the Year” award — until it emerged that such an award didn’t actually exist.) Kasich was not called on during the debate’s gun round, but in the aftermath of the Oregon shooting this fall, he proclaimed that he opposed “stripping law-abiding citizens of their guns.” 

Each of the four candidates is fighting to be the establishment alternative to Trump or Cruz. And none of them is choosing a more moderate gun stance as a way of standing out — despite the fact that, according to a recent Reuters poll, 44 percent of Republicans believe that the next president should tighten gun laws.

Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Yale, says the uniformity is a product of varying voter intensity; there are GOP voters in favor of more restrictions, it’s just not the most important issue for them. “[The candidates] aren’t going to use their political capital on the issue because there’s no coalition of moderate Republican voters who are super enthusiastic about gun control,” he told The Trace. “The only side of this issue that has an energized base — at least in the Republican sphere — is the ‘pro-gun’ side. So there’s no electoral upside to pushing back against them.” 

Gun rights have also become a “sort of litmus test” for Republicans to measure a candidate’s conservative values, adds Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown. (Hence the attacks on Christie’s past support for certain restrictions as Christie’s numbers have risen in New Hampshire, the field’s lone significant gun-related flash point.) And the issue isn’t a complicated one for voters to follow, he adds: “You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of it, if you’re a voter who cares about that issue. It’s easy to understand — whereas the nuances of health care policy might be hard to get around.” While GOP candidates may be able to get away with more moderate stances on some other issues, Noel points out that a less conservative position on gun rights would not go unnoticed by the Republican base.

Mike Ting, a political scientist at Columbia who studies elections, believes a third calculus is at play as well. In this rationale, he explained, gun policy is an ideal issue for GOP candidates to woo conservative primary voters without “burning bridges” with other constituencies — specifically, moderates and independents — should they win the nomination and head on to the general election. 

Ting’s analysis is backed up by the observations of Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on the politics of guns. Spitzer points to polling that’s found that very few voters will choose a candidate in a general election based on their gun policy position. “While most Americans do not agree with the NRA or with pro-gun positions, it’s not a top-tier concern for them, as they will vote on other issues, like the economy,” he said.

But as gun reform develops into a more important issue for Democrats, Georgetown’s Hans Noel suggested that taking a unabashedly pro-gun stance to survive a primary may not prove to be as safe a bet in the general election as it once seemed. “If the issue becomes a litmus test on the left, which it could, then it might change a lot of these dynamics,” he said. In the Democratic race, that’s a wager Hillary Clinton has been increasingly willing to make, suggesting that should she win her party’s nomination, the 2016 race may yet get a truly substantive debate about guns come this fall.  

[Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash]