ON THE AGENDA | JUNE 23RD, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

On Gun Control, Special Interests vs the Public Interest

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At Public Agenda we believe that a healthy democracy requires an engaged public.

Only an engaged public can make the hard journey from superficial, knee-jerk public opinion to responsible, widely-shared public judgment. This more stable public judgment provides a sound foundation for public policy.

But while it's true that public judgment tends to influence public policy, too often the politics of the moment deny the public's will and bend it instead to the will of special interests.

Such is the case with guns in contemporary America. For many years, a substantial majority of Americans has shown stable support for increasing background checks and related measures to limit the ability of dangerous individuals to obtain guns.

Yet this widespread public judgment is subverted, time and again, by a passionate minority and a well-organized and funded interest group that views even modest measures as an existential threat. When this happens, public judgment isn't enough. It must translate into public action to bring about needed change.

In the wake of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, it felt as though the political dynamics of gun control were changing. A 15-hour filibuster and legislative proposals from both Democrats and Republicans gave rare hope to the large majority of Americans who support common-sense measures to make it more difficult for some individuals to buy guns.

The public opinion support was there: Polling data shows that strong majorities of Americans, regardless of their political leanings, favor just the sort of legislation being considered this week. Indeed, long-standing support for increased background checks and measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals has only grown stronger given the ties of recent mass shooting to potential terrorist influence:

  • In a CNN poll last week, following the Orlando shooting, 92% of American said they want expanded background checks, 87% supported a ban for felons or people with mental health problems and 85% said they would ban people on federal watch lists from buying guns. Among Republicans, 90% said they favor preventing people on the terror watch list or no-fly list from buying a gun. That number is at 85% for Democrats.
  • In a Quinnipiac University poll from December, conducted after the San Bernardino attack, 83% of registered voters supported banning gun purchases for people on the government's terrorist watch list. This measure had support from 89% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans, and 80% of voters in gun-owning households. In a Gallup poll, also from December, 71% percent of adults said a ban on gun sales to people on the federal no-fly list would be "very" or "somewhat" effective in the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

The legislation proposed by the the Senate and the House this week isn't perfect. But the proposals offer an important starting point for a meaningful bill that would limit the ability of dangerous and violent individuals to access guns. Yet once again, the legislative process has been stymied by the NRA's pressure on a Congress that routinely places partisanship over pragmatic problem solving.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that the NRA is wrong on all counts. Whether law-abiding Americans have some kind of right to own some kind of guns is not my focus. Rather, I am arguing that the public's judgment that some limitations are appropriate is receiving too little response from our elected representatives.

The NRA's effectiveness is bolstered by what Pew Research labels an activism gap on gun policy. According to their 2013 survey, people who prioritize gun rights over gun control are far more likely to be politically involved. They are four or five times more likely to contribute money to advocacy groups, contact public officials, sign petitions and express their views on social media.

So while public opinion polls reliably indicate a majority of Americans supports the gun control measures put forth by Democrats and Republicans this week, public officials were more forcefully influenced by the active minority and the organized, narrowly focused interest group that opposed them.

This is why deeper, more robust public participation and engagement is so crucial on some issues, beyond what pollsters register as people's preferences. A passive majority often cannot prevail against an active and organized minority.

If you believe that the most powerful interest group should prevail, then that's fine. But if you think that a long-standing powerful majority should have influence, then change must come. And for this to come to pass, the majority will need to become a more active force in public affairs.

The sheer volume of mass shootings has reached such a crescendo that people appear to be at the breaking point, and a number of politicians, Democrats and Republicans, have begun to take a stand on gun control measures. But if some politicians are standing up, it's important for the public to do so as well. This means translating the support they show in opinion surveys into political behaviors like voting and speaking out to counter the political attacks that are sure to come. If you want your representatives to stand up, it's time to speak up.


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