Finding consensus on US gun control

Studies show that there is bipartisan agreement on some parts of a divisive issue. What's the motivating factor?

Alex Brandon/AP
People fill Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control on March 24, 2018. The rally was organized following the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

Few US policy issues are as polarizing as gun control. A 2018 Pew Research Center report shows that 80 percent of Democrats say US gun laws should be stricter, while only 28 percent of Republicans would say the same; and another 20 percent of Republicans say that gun laws should be less strict. 

Issues tied to mass shootings also reveal partisan divisions. About two-thirds of Democrats believe that restricting gun access would reduce the frequency of mass shootings, and the same proportion of Republicans say it would not.

However, the same Pew Research Center report reveals that there are areas where bipartisan support for aspects of gun control is strong. For example, 89 percent of both Republican and Democratic voters say people with mental illness should not be allowed to buy guns. Almost the same number also agree that people on federal watch lists should have restricted gun access. And 91 percent of Democratic voters and 79 percent of Republican voters say gun sales made in private and at gun shows should have background checks.

And overall, 57 percent of Americans agree that US gun laws should be stricter – an increase of five percentage points from 2017.

“In the specific questions about ... increasing gun regulations, there has been something of an uptick, and I think that is real, and that is bipartisan,” says Don Haider-Markel, political science chair at the University of Kansas; his research focuses on the relationship between public opinion, political behavior, and public policy. And, he adds, language used to discuss issues within divisive topics is the key factor in creating bipartisan consensus.

“When you phrase [gun control questions] in these general ways, like gun rights versus gun control … it triggers a predisposed partisan response,” Dr. Haider-Markel says. "Whereas the more specific questions ... don't automatically trigger partisan responses.”

Bipartisanship in the Florida legislature was seen in the aftermath of the high-profile Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in which student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people and injured 17 more with a semiautomatic rifle in Parkland, Fla. Protests, many of which were student-led, called for stricter gun control measures. And in a rare move for a Republican-controlled state, the Florida legislature passed a bill March 7 that increased gun restrictions. The bill raised the age at which guns can be bought and added a three-day waiting period after gun sales; it also allowed some school employees to be armed. “The protests and the mobilization really help sustain attention,” says Haider-Markel.

Since then, however, new legislation has been introduced that could undo those restrictions. Haider-Markel says that shifts in opinion toward gun control are not uncommon. “[In] the overall questions about gun regulations ... you basically see little blips that happen after mass shooting events, with an increase in support for gun control, and then it drops off.” But, he adds, “That, too, has been bipartisan, in that both the uptick in gun control support is amongst both Republicans and Democrats; and then at some point after those mass shooting events, the downturn is amongst Democrats and Republicans as well.”

Change in thought about gun control usually comes from an emotional response to an event, Haider-Markel says. For example, in one of his studies of responses to the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., he says that Republican voters, who are most predisposed not to support gun control measures, were “the ones most likely to change” if they felt anxiety about the event. “But it’s all conditioned on emotional response,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the Monitor's Nov. 19, 2018 weekly print edition.

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