Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin-Toomey background-check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.
Sounds like a true story, but is it? We see another example today, in a Washington Post article based on a new poll, headlined, "Why Gun Laws Are So Hard to Pass." The narrative of the article wildly overstates what the data show. Here's how it reads:
Gun owners are far more politically engaged than are those in households without guns, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a chasm that goes a long way toward explaining the seeming disconnect between Congress and the American public when it comes to reforming the country’s firearms laws.
One in five gun owners say they've called, written or emailed a public official to express their views on the gun issue. Just one in 10 of those in households without a gun say the same. The disparity is even greater when it comes to making donations to organizations involved in the issue; 19 percent of gun owners say they’ve given money while just 4 percent in non-gun households say the same.
And, for many of those politically active gun owners, opposition to gun rights is a disqualifying position for a politician. Four in 10 gun activists — defined as those who have either contacted a politician or donated money — would rule out voting for a candidate with whom they disagree on gun policy but with whom they agree on other issues. That compares with just over a quarter of non-gun activists who would rule out a politician who took a position opposite theirs on guns.
All of these numbers illustrate the crux of the divide between public opinion and political action on guns. While majorities of the public support things like expanded background checks, banning or limiting high capacity magazines and reinstituting the assault weapons ban, they — by and large — don't feel passionately about any of it. Those opposed to such measures are smaller in numbers but extremely passionate.
Seems persuasive, right? But if we look closely at the numbers, things don't seem so clear-cut. First, let's dispense with the money question—the NRA's money does nothing for them, and now that Michael Bloomberg is involved, the pro-gun side will be easily outspent, so how many people donate to them has no impact. Next: gun owners call and write more? They do, but there are more gun owners. According to the data in this poll, 18 percent of those in gun owning households say they've called or written officials on the issue, compared to 10 percent of those in non-gun-owning households. But 43 percent of the respondents said there were guns in their homes, and 55 percent said there weren't. That means that officials are hearing from 7.7 percent of Americans who are calling from gun-owning households (18 percent times 43 percent), and 5.5 percent of Americans calling from non-gun-owning households (10 percent times 55 percent). Even if we assume that all the gun owners are calling to say there should be no restrictions on guns and all the non-owners are calling to say there should be restrictions on guns (which we don't know, and given the fact that most gun owners say they support background checks, it's probably not true), 7.7 percent to 5.5 percent is hardly some vast, overwhelming disparity.
Now we get to the part where the Post article just gets it completely wrong. They repeat the common assertion that gun owners are single-issue voters, while people who don't own guns aren't. But according to their data, that's not true at all:
So people who own guns and people who don't own guns are exactly as likely to vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on that issue. How did the Post manage to tell the opposite story? By switching their focus in that paragraph to only the "activists," people who say they've given money or contacted their representatives. To which the rational politician should respond, who cares? A vote is a vote, whether it came from an ordinary gun owner or a gun activist. What matters about the small subset of the electorate we can define as activists is, well, how active they are, much less than how they eventually vote.
Obviously, this will vary a lot by region. The people who represent rural areas in the South where firearms enthusiasm is highest are mostly conservative Republicans, and the people who represent urban areas in the North where concern about gun violence is highest are mostly liberal Democrats, and neither one needs persuading. But what these data show is that, contrary to the story we've always heard about those engaged, single-issue gun owners, there isn't much difference between the two sides on how many people are engaging in some kind of political action and how they decide their votes.