A rack of used rifles on sale at a gun store in Virginia
A rack of used rifles on sale at a gun store in Virginia / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: A Trend That Should Worry Gun-Rights Advocates [Member Exclusive]

71 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws.

That’s bad news if you’re a gun-rights proponent. But it’s not the worst news out of the latest Associated Press poll. What’s worse is the trend that brought about that all-time high.

Between December 2013 and August 2022, the number of Americans who say they want stricter gun laws has increased by 19 points. That’s a massive swing.

To some degree, this is what you’d expect to see after a shooting as horrific as the Uvalde shooting. Support for gun-control measures normally spikes in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings. Post-Uvalde polling from Gallup and Quinnipiac University showed the same jump in support for stricter gun laws.

Those polls identified the same kind of downturn once America is further out from a major attack. The AP poll shows jumps between 2015 and 2016 as well as 2019 and 2022. But it also shows drops between 2016 and 2017 as well as 2018 and 2019.

What’s clear, though, is the overall trend has moved upward. Where the poll used to fluctuate between the mid-50s and low-60s, it now fluctuates between the high-60s and low-70s. So long as that trend continues, the potential for new federal gun laws will increase alongside it.

With the defeat of an abortion-ban ballot initiative in Kansas and Republican Marc Molinaro in the swing district of New York 19, the potential for Republican disaster is increasing. Democrats have shown a willingness to pass new gun restrictions and even bans largely on the back of strong polling indicating Americans want stricter gun laws. If they retain control of Congress and pick up a seat or two in the Senate, that could lead to the end of the Senate filibuster and a new federal “assault weapons” ban along with it.

But that’s the nightmare scenario for gun-rights advocates. As bad as the trend is, there are a few reasons to think it may not continue, and we may not see strict new gun laws anytime soon.

For one, midterm elections tend to follow a certain hype schedule. Initially, the party out of power appears to have a chance at historic gains. Then, as the election draws closer, things tend to tighten up, and people begin to wonder if the party in power might be able to turn things around. Eventually, things tend to settle where the out-of-power party gains enough seats to retake at least one house of Congress, even if it’s not as many seats as seemed possible a few months earlier.

It certainly feels like we’re in the middle of that cycle right now. There are exceptions to the rules, but basic fundamentals still favor Republicans taking back at least the House of Representatives. They only need to flip five seats to do it, and President Joe Biden remains historically unpopular going into the midterm season.

Plus, the AP poll shows most Americans also want to protect gun rights and the ability of people to defend themselves with firearms. It shows they are more open to restricting access to guns for people who are shown to be a threat to themselves or others, such as the mentally ill or those convicted of domestic violence, than they are to categorical gun bans. While the poll found an increase in support for a ban on AR-15s, the first I’ve seen since the Uvalde massacre, that support is still 26 points lower than support for restricting those with mental illnesses.

The breakdown in how much stricter people want gun laws to be is further evidence of this. While support for more stringent gun laws is at an all-time high in the poll, support for “much stricter” gun laws is actually down five points from 2018. The number of people saying they want “somewhat stricter” laws is at an all-time high.

It’s precisely those people Republicans were hoping to appeal to when they supported the bi-partisan gun bill in June.

“We’ve lost ground in suburban areas. We pretty much own rural and small-town America. And I think this is a sensible solution to the problem before us, which is school safety and mental health,” McConnell told Politico of the decision in June. “I hope it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs that we need to regain in order to hopefully be in the majority next year.”

The first new federal gun restrictions in a generation may bring down the level of support for further restrictions. The law does not include the kind of categorical bans on types of guns Americans can own but does extend domestic violence prohibitions to more people, among other reforms. It may satiate some of the demand for “somewhat stricter” gun laws.

Plus, the poll also shows growth in gun ownership. The number of people reporting a gun in the home climbed 7 points since 2019. A previous AP poll indicates those new gun owners may be even less receptive to stricter gun-control laws. So, as more people buy guns and change their attitude toward ownership, support for more gun restrictions could wane.

But that clearly hasn’t taken effect in polling yet. And gun-rights advocates should recognize they may not be able to rely on it as an inevitability. Instead, they will likely have to be more proactive to convince the public new gun restrictions are not the answer to mass shootings.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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