As the debates about gun laws unfolded after the Sandy Hook tragedy, a lot of people seemed to think there was one particular force standing in the way of real reform. News articles talked about how “The National Rifle Assn. and its allies have successfully kept” reform efforts “at bay for years.” Pundits talked about “the orthodoxy promulgated by the National Rifle Association.” Liberal economists tweeted tirades about the “pricks in the gun lobby who enable this madness.” Even President Obama accused lawmakers of caring more about getting “a A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns.”
All of these people seem to imagine the NRA as this Terrible Necromancer that wields an unjust amount of power with its Magic Wand of Lobbying to prevent the common-sense changes that most people really support to make the world a better place. The accusations carry a vibe similar to the oil industry: If only it wasn’t for that powerful oil lobby, we could take real steps to prevent climate change. If only it wasn’t for that powerful gun lobby, we could take real steps to prevent mass shootings!
Unfortunately, I don’t think this characterization of the NRA as a big bad boogieman has much relation to reality.
The National Rifle Association has over four million members. This is just over 1% of the US population – not a huge proportion, but a large absolute number of people very interested in gun rights. It’s possible that a large number of the NRA’s members specifically view their annual fee as an investment in protecting their gun rights; this might make the NRA the largest “lobby” in the country.
But what about that 99%? Turns out over half of them like the organization, even if they aren’t paying members. The NRA has a 54% favorability rating in the latest Gallup poll, a number that has remained largely constant over the last two decades.
Why do over half of Americans side with an organization that is adamant about protecting gun rights? Maybe it’s because over half of Americans are also interested in protecting gun rights. The percentage of Americans who generally want “stricter” gun laws has drifted downward since the 70’s (although post-Newtown it has shot back up a bit). The percentage of Americans who oppose a specific ban on assault rifles is still on a slight upward trend:
The number of Americans who support an outright ban on private handgun possession has been falling for over fifty years. It’s slightly disturbing to think that 24% of Americans think that would be a good idea (though I can give a charitable benefit of doubt to most of them), but it’s even more disturbing to think that 60% of Americans felt that way in 1959.
If you don’t like Gallup’s polling history, there are many other polls that show similar numbers and trends. However you slice it, roughly half the country is generally pretty supportive of gun rights. In fact, for all the talk about how America is becoming more ‘liberal’ / ‘dependent’ / ‘takers’ etc, there are several metrics suggesting that the country is somehow becoming more ‘conservative’ about guns.
So maybe the uphill battle for national gun control legislation isn’t just the fault of the NRA or the “gun lobby.” Maybe the reason even Democratic senators sometimes oppose gun control measures is simply that they know that a majority of their constituents oppose them as well.