How Democrats Got Gun Control Polling Wrong

Despite widespread support for gun regulations, intensity is on the NRA's side.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says she is not done advocating for an assault rifle ban. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (National Journal)

Proponents of gun-control legislation, emboldened by the president's call for stricter laws and overwhelming support in public polling, have been optimistic that proposals for background checks or a crackdown on weapons trafficking could pass Congress. Gun-control advocates have cited plenty of data to make their case, including surveys that show more than 80 percent of Americans support background checks.

Even a ban on assault weapons, which has been a more polarizing issue, still wins majority support in many surveys.

But these polls may gloss over some complexities in public opinion on gun control, and explain why Democrats are having so much trouble winning congressional support for even the most modest gun regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week said he would not include the assault-weapons ban in legislation the Senate will consider next month, an acknowledgement that he doesn't think that proposal could pass. Democrats fear that including the assault-weapons ban might doom the prospects for other measures such as background checks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who authored the proposal, said she wasn't backing down and would try to tack on the assault-weapons ban as an amendment instead.

So, why aren't the polling numbers on gun control swaying more members of Congress? Many of the poll numbers don't capture the nuances of public opinion. For example, there is a significant difference in the level of passion of voters on the two sides of the issue. While members of the National Rifle Association or conservative gun owners home in on this issue, gun-control proponents may not register that sort of excitement.

The level of voter passion may also depend on where the respondents live. In January, there were 44 gun homicides in Chicago. In 2011, there were only 40 gun homicides in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. The political pressure for members of Congress from those states is much less than it would be for a senator from Illinois. In fact, Sens. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, both from Illinois, are two of the lawmakers who have come out strongly for some of these gun-control laws.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics for Third Way, said her group has conducted polling in some of these states where gun violence isn't a major issue. When they asked if they thought policies would be effective in reducing crime, most respondents said it wouldn't. When asked if legislation was addressing a problem in their community or somewhere far away, most respondents went with the latter. The support for gun-control policies then is "really high but shallow," Hatalsky said.

"People will support this and they think it's a good idea, but they don't feel super deeply about it," Hatalsky said. "They're not convinced that it will necessarily work and that it will work to change their own lives."

While the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School stirred up plenty of passion for gun control and closed part of the enthusiasm gap, Hatalsky argues that the economy or the unemployment rate may be more important to these people. A Pew Research Poll from January confirms this, showing gun control near the bottom of voter-issue priorities.

But the reason why gun-control legislation has waning support in Congress may not have to do with lack of passion from supporters, but the gaping divide between Republican lawmakers and a Democratic president.

Following the presidential election, polling showed that some two-thirds of voters supported tax increases on Americans making over $250,000 a year. A similar number of voters supported a so-called "balanced" approach of spending cuts and tax increases that President Obama proposed. There's a similar dynamic with gay marriage, climate-change legislation, and elements of the president's health care proposal.

"These dynamics are not new," said John Anzalone, a national Democratic pollster. "There's always been this gap with voters' attitudes and Congress catching up to it or the politics of Congress catching up to it"¦. You have to put into Congress not just public opinion, but also politics."

This issue is partly rooted in redistricting, where congressional districts have become safer for certain parties. Some members of Congress no longer have to worry about a challenger from a different party, but a challenger from their own party. Challengers who are upset that a lawmaker's policies are not conservative or liberal enough may also complicate this situation.

This doesn't mean gun-control legislation is dead. On the contrary, both Hatalsky and Anzalone, in addition to gun-control advocates, still believe proposals like universal background checks can pass Congress. But it always depends on the House. A Senate-passed bill with more than 60 votes would send a strong message to Speaker John Boehner.

"At the beginning of this process, we thought it could pass with 60 votes," said Mark Glaze, the executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "Six weeks later, we see the same path."

A purely partisan vote would kill the bill's chances, which is likely why Reid decided to keep the divisive assault-weapons ban out of the main legislation. But Senate Democrats still have not demonstrated how to get the other proposals passed in the House, despite the encouraging polling.