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Gun Control as a Political Issue

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The conventional wisdom is that there is nothing politicians are going to do about gun control because it’s such a hot button topic that it would be political suicide to take on the issue, except in very blue districts. But is this true? The Florida school shooting has seen more outrage than anything since Sandy Hook in no small part because the survivors themselves are furious at Republicans and are speaking out, slamming prominent gun nuts on Twitter, etc. So is there political space to make gun control a winning issue. Sean McElwee suggests that there is a lot more than we think.

The evidence suggests yes, even in the toughest districts that Democrats are contesting. National polls indicate strong and durable support for common-sense gun reforms such as banning assault rifles and closing the gun show loophole that allows some gun sales to be conducted without a background check. There is evidence that such laws might help stem mass shootings, though it’s clear that ending gun violence must be addressed by beyond those limited policies.

But national polling may not indicate much at the state or even congressional district level. To see what gun control polling looked like on a district-by-district basis, I asked political scientist Christopher Skovron for some help. Skovron is an expert in a modeling technique designed to estimate district-level opinion called multilevel regression and poststratification (MRP). That technique uses regression modeling that accounts for individual characteristics like race and gender as well as district characteristics like support for Trump.

Using the MRP estimates, I then analyzed support for ending the gun show loophole and banning assault weapons—policies often cited by gun control advocates—in the 98 Republican-held districts that Democrats are targeting. I find that in the average DCCC target district, support for closing the gun show loophole (“background checks for all sales, including at gun shows and over the internet” is how the question is worded) is a whopping 88 percent; support for an assault weapon ban (“ban assault weapons”) is 61 percent. The chart below shows the distribution of support for closing the gun show loophole (the three districts that stand out are Maine’s Second and the at-large districts for Montana and Alaska, all areas with strong gun cultures).

The chart below shows support for banning assault weapons. The only district where support is estimated to be lower than 50 percent are West Virginia’s Third, another place where anti–gun control views are no surprise. In Colorado’s Third and Montana’s at-large district, predicted support is almost exactly 50/50. But support an assault weapons ban dips below 55 percent in only 6 percent of DCCC target districts, suggesting that talking about a ban wouldn’t hurt a candidate.

That’s pretty interesting. I have trouble seeing Democrats do this, in no small part because the conventional wisdom in the party still sees everything through the 1990s and not a lot of candidates are willing to buck that, although it is slowly changing. But there may be a lot more space for anti-gun politics than we think.

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