Fourteen months ago, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school prompted a national dialogue about gun violence. The weeks and months following the shooting provided a rare window of opportunity for policymakers to garner the public support and political will needed to strengthen gun laws in the United States, and polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans supported many gun policy options. In January 2013, less than a month after the Sandy Hook shooting, our team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research conducted a national public opinion survey to gauge Americans’ support for gun policy options. We found that large majorities of Americans— including gun owners and Republicans—supported a wide range of gun policies, including policies to enhance the background check system for gun sales and prevent certain categories of dangerous persons—like those convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes—from having guns.
But in spite of widespread public support for strengthening gun violence prevention policies, Congress failed to pass any federal gun policy legislation. Perhaps most notably, Congress failed to strengthen the background check system for gun sales, despite our polling data showing that 89% of Americans overall, 86% of Republicans, 84% of gun owners, and 74% of National Rifle Association members supported requiring background checks for all gun sales.
Why did Congress fail to pass gun violence prevention policies in the wake of Sandy Hook? Three potential reasons stand out.
First, the structure of the United States Senate is partly to blame. The Senate requires 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to pass legislation—difficult to achieve on controversial, politically polarized issues like gun policy. What’s more, all states, regardless of population size, are represented by two senators. This means that senators from rural states with small populations and high rates of gun ownership have the same amount of influence as senators from states with large populations and lower rates of gun ownership.
Second, interest groups play a critical role in the political process surrounding gun policy. In the gun policy area, interest groups in favor of strengthening gun laws have historically been out-funded by the pro-gun National Rifle Association, which is commonly acknowledged as one of the powerful interest groups in the United States. In 2012, the National Rifle Association spent over twenty-four million dollars on political contributions, lobbying, advertising, and other communication activities intended to influence policy outcomes.
Third, there is a political participation gap between those who support versus those who oppose strengthening gun laws. Pro-gun advocates tend to be more politically active than the majority of Americans who support stronger policies. These politically active individuals contribute money to candidates or organizations, communicate their policy preferences to elected officials, join advocacy groups, and engage in other activities that influence policy outcomes.
What’s next? Gun policy is one of the most politically polarizing issues in American politics, and for many Americans “gun control” symbolizes a threat to a broad set of conservative values related to a rural way of life, the importance of personal responsibility, and the role of government. However, survey data shows that gun owners support a wide range of gun policies. Moving forward, it will be critically important to energize and increase the political participation of the large majority of gun owners who support strengthening gun laws.
Beth McGinty and Colleen Barry are contributors to Updated Evidence and Policy Developments on Reducing Gun Violence in America, edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick. Beth McGinty, MS, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, is an associate professor and associate chair for Research and Practice in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. McGinty and Barry recently spoke about the importance of mentoring.
This digital update to Reducing Gun Violence in America presents new evidence and developments in the effort to address the staggering toll of gun violence in the United States. In 2013—in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School—Johns Hopkins University Press published Reducing Gun Violence in America, a collection of essays written by the world’s leading experts on gun violence. Updated Evidence and Policy Developments on Reducing Gun Violence in America follows up on the state of American gun violence by analyzing new data, research, and policy developments one year after Sandy Hook.