Universal background checks may be the most popular policy that’s never been enacted at the federal level. For more than two decades, polls have consistently shown that between 80 and 90 percent of Americans support extending checks to cover private sales, with high support regularly found among Republicans and gun owners.
Other gun reforms also draw significant support, including red flag laws, mental health restrictions for gun purchases, raising the legal age limit to buy a gun, and safe storage laws meant to keep guns from children. Overall, support for stricter gun restrictions in general tends to poll slightly lower but retains majority support in most recent polls.
Now, in the aftermath of shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde a familiar cycle is repeating. National support for more gun restrictions is rising, much as it did after Parkland in 2018 and the Dayton and El Paso shootings in 2019. But once again, it’s unlikely that will translate into federal policy changes. While the House passed a broad package of gun restrictions this week, it stands virtually no chance in the Senate, where negotiators are discussing a much narrower set of reforms.
What explains the divergence between popular opinion and the law, particularly at the federal level? Here are some of the factors at play.
The squishiness of gun polls
While many individual gun reforms retain overwhelming support and the overall national trend reflects the popularity of tighter gun laws, that doesn’t mean all voters think it’s the most important issue.
“We get thrown off by the fact that virtually everyone agrees on this issue — we are a bit deluded by the near-consensus,” said criminologist John Roman. “But just because everyone agrees and shares an opinion does not mean they all feel strongly about it.”
There is a lot of data giving credence to that idea. Gun control ranked second to last behind the economy, abortion, health care, immigration, and taxes in a May Monmouth University poll asking people to rank six policy areas in importance for their vote in the midterms. The same poll in August 2018 found that gun control came in fourth among the same set of topics.
A CNN/SSRS poll from February suggests that conservatives even ranked gun policy as a higher voting priority, with 45 percent voters who lean Republican saying gun policy was extremely important to their vote in the 2022 midterms, versus 40 percent for Democratic-leaning voters.
When polling didn’t translate at the ballot box
Background check policies engender overwhelming support in theory, but the policies have drawn less support in practice. Writing in The Upshot, New York Times correspondent Nate Cohn looked at four Democratic-leaning states that held recent ballot initiatives on expanding background checks for guns or ammunition — California (for ammunition only, in 2016), Maine (2016), Nevada (2016), and Washington (2014).
The actual support each referendum received in the vote was far lower than what would have been expected based on national survey data at the time. In Nevada, the state with the biggest discrepancy, actual support (50 percent) was 36 percentage points lower than expected; in Washington, the state with the smallest discrepancy, actual support (59 percent) was still 22 percentage points lower. In each of the four states, the final vote closely resembled the partisan split each saw in the 2016 presidential election.
Realities of the Senate
The U.S. Senate has often been the graveyard for politically popular policies. For gun policy, a burst of popularity for new gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 failed to make a dent, with the Manchin-Toomey universal background check failing in 2013.
That’s in part because the upper chamber’s design of two senators per state, which means that less populated rural states that tend to be more conservative are overrepresented. Even more critically, the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome a filibuster under current Senate rules prevents a simple majority from enacting legislation, as was the case when Manchin-Toomey secured an insufficient majority of 54 votes.
The divergence between polling and policy is often most pronounced at the federal level, but is readily apparent in states, as well.
Following the Oxford High School shooting in November, The Trace’s Will Van Sant wrote about Michigan’s redistricting after the 2010 census. New state maps allowed Republicans to maintain a greater proportion of seats in the state Legislature despite receiving less than 50 percent of the votes cast in the next five elections. As a result, proposals for gun reform in the state never got a hearing.
A similar dynamic is evident even in deep-red Texas. Forty-three percent of Texans favor stricter gun laws, according to a recent poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. By comparison, 34 percent of respondents said gun laws should be left as they are, and 16 percent wanted them less strict. On nine occasions since 2015, a plurality or majority of Texans said they wanted stricter gun laws. So what explains the difference between those nuanced polls and the reality of the state’s far looser gun laws? “Primarily, an election system that prioritizes the policy positions of a relatively small slice of the state’s most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries through gerrymandering and low-turnout elections,” Joshua Blank, the director of research at the Texas Politics Project, wrote in an op-ed after the Uvalde shooting.
Loosening gun laws is still popular. And gaining ground in some places.
As Democratic-leaning states continue to push for stricter gun laws, as New York did on June 6, Republican-leaning states have moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps the biggest gun policy story of the last few years is the success of permitless carry. In 25 states, you can now carry a concealed handgun in public without any licensing requirements. Ten of those states, all led by Republicans, passed the laws in the last two years. There’s a similar push for such laws in Florida and other states with Republican-led statehouses.
Lastly, Americans bought more than 40 million guns in 2020 and 2021, the two highest years on record, according to our gun sales tracker. About 5 percent of adults in America purchased a gun for the first time between March 2020 and March 2022, according to a March survey from NORC at the University of Chicago. Those buyers — who were more likely to be younger and people of color than in the past — were about as likely to support looser gun laws as pre-pandemic gun owners. But the million-dollar question remains what effect more gun owners has on policy preferences.
Roman, who led the NORC survey, said “We don’t know whether people made the natural switch to become gun owners because they already shared those policies [preferences] or whether it was buying the gun that caused them to change their policy preferences to align more with other gun owners.”