Could gun control be the new gay marriage?

The public's views on gay marriage have moved decidedly to the left, spurred by demographic and generational changes in the electorate. But that same electorate has shifted to the right on gun control. Why the politics of the two issues are different, for now. 

Jamie Lusch/The Medford Mail Tribune/AP
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters voices his opinion on President Obama’s gun control plans during a news conference on Wednesday. From Oregon to Mississippi, President Obama's proposed ban on new assault weapons and large-capacity magazines struck a nerve among rural lawmen and lawmakers, many of whom vowed to ignore any restrictions, and even try to stop federal officials from enforcing gun policy in their jurisdictions.

Is gun control the new gay marriage? Or are the issues more like mirror images of one another?

Both could be categorized as hot-button topics that for years generated more political activism on the right than on the left. Both have also seen a recent shift in public opinion that, in the case of gay marriage, is upending the politics surrounding the issue, and in the case of gun control, has the potential to do so.

But there are big differences between the two, as well. Gun control has been around as an issue much longer than gay marriage, and public opinion on it has waxed and waned – with support often spiking after a high-profile shooting, only to fall again. Moreover, the long-term trend on gun control, unlike gay marriage, has been a rise in opposition. As recently as April, the Pew Research Center put out a report noting the divergent trends on the two issues, noting that "on gun control, Americans have become more conservative; on gay marriage, Americans have become more liberal."

Still, gun-control proponents including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been arguing vociferously that the issue is not nearly the political loser that Democrats have for years assumed it to be. And the dramatic change that's been occurring when it comes to public opinion on gay marriage – pulling politicians along with it – offers an intriguing model as to where the politics surrounding the gun issue could potentially be headed. 

Let's look first at gay marriage. As recently as 2004, President George W. Bush's campaign was able to use it as a "wedge issue" to drive up turnout among conservatives, helping him win reelection. That year, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while just 31 percent favored it. Four years later, in 2008, those numbers had shifted – though the majority was still in opposition, with 51 percent opposing, and 38 percent in favor. 

By 2012, however, it was a completely different story: In July, Pew found just 41 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while a plurality of 48 percent favored it. Some of that shift was driven by generational changes, since young people tend to be more broadly in favor of gay marriage (though support has gone up among all age groups). The bigger change, though, was demographic: The electorate has become more Democratic, more urban, more educated, less religious, and less white – and the politics surrounding many cultural issues like gay marriage have shifted accordingly. 

So might those same demographic changes portend a similar shift to the left in public opinion on guns?

Well, in recent years, as previously noted, the trend has been in the opposite direction – with support for gun rights growing. In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans said it was more important to control guns, while just 30 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights. By contrast, in the wake of last summer's movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., just 47 percent said controlling guns should be the priority, compared with 46 percent preferring to protect gun rights. 

That shifted somewhat in the wake of Newtown. In a survey released this week, Pew found 51 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership, while 45 percent were on the side of protecting gun rights. That puts support for gun control at its highest point in President Obama's tenure, yet still well below the levels of support found during the Clinton years.

But it's also worth noting that the rise in opposition to gun control has come about almost entirely because of a shift among Republicans, who have become much more strongly in favor of gun rights in recent years, while views among Democrats have remained relatively stable. 

And in many cases, those who currently say they favor protecting gun rights actually do support certain gun-control measures, such as universal background checks (favored by 85 percent overall) and preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns (80 percent support). Even more notable, 58 percent of Americans say they would favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Bottom line: It's too soon to tell where all this is heading. But while the overall trajectory of public opinion on gun control has not resembled the trajectory on gay marriage in recent years, it's also not crazy to think that it might start to, soon.

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