IN THE months since a teenage gunman slaughtered 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, a student-led campaign has organised two mass walkouts from schools and country-wide demonstrations. On May 4th, President Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the vice-president, will appear at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Dallas—suggesting the politics of guns in America has shifted little since the protests. But there are reasons to believe the newly energised movement for gun control is having an impact.
Polling suggests that an increasing proportion of Americans believe laws covering the sale of firearms should be made stricter: 67% in March, up from 47% in October 2014, and the highest level since 1993, according to Gallup. But the issue has become less pressing for voters than it was immediately after the Florida shooting. A poll by Marist College in April found the percentage of respondents who said a candidate’s position on gun control would be a major factor in how they vote fell from 59% to 46% between February and April.
That is in line with earlier shooting tragedies, in which Americans quickly returned to their earlier positions. And even when the will for change is there, it may make little difference to policy-making. Most Americans support background checks for all gun-buyers and a majority want a ban on assault weapons; neither has been introduced. Pew Research suggests even the majority of gun owners backed a federal database to track gun sales before the Florida tragedy. Congress has shown no desire to pass such a law.
That inaction is partly down to the fact that broader views on gun control have become a strong partisan marker. Pew Research has been asking “What do you think is more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?” since 1993. In that year, Democrats favoured control by 65% to 25% percent. Over the next 24 years the gap increased from 40 to 58 percentage points. Among Republicans in 1993, 47% favoured controlling gun ownership compared to 45% who favoured the right to own guns. By 2017, only 18% favoured gun control compared to 79% favouring gun rights. Party identification is now a stronger signal of attitudes towards gun control than owning a gun.
The force of partisanship has been made stronger by intensity of feeling. Traditionally, gun rights activist have been more passionate than advocates for gun control. In the 2016 federal election cycle, gun control groups accounted for $3m in outside political spending compared to $54.9m from gun rights organisations. Perhaps more importantly, believers in gun rights contact their political representatives more frequently than gun control advocates do. That may skew politicians’ beliefs about the popularity of gun control measures.
But the “intensity gap” between supporters and opponents of gun control may now be shrinking. The Marist poll found that 53% of Democrats said a candidate’s position on gun control would be a major factor in how they voted compared to 44% of Republicans. Perhaps if more motivated Democrats started calling their representatives to discuss gun control, politicians would get a more accurate sense of their constituents’ opinions.
Meanwhile, the scale of the Parkland students’ protests—and their explicit focus on political registration and participation—may yet translate into electoral influence. The participants at the gun control rallies in March outnumbered those at the women’s marches in January and hugely outnumbered those at the Tea Party rallies of April 2009. The Tea Party rallies are estimated to have mobilised a small percentage of House votes cast later that year.
Because of the protests, more Democratic candidates are talking about gun control ahead of the midterms in November than usual. Younger voters may be particularly receptive to that message: a recent survey by Harvard showed a 15-point jump since 2013 in the number of 18- to 29-year-olds who favour stricter gun laws. Mr Trump hopes his appearance at the NRA convention will encourage those who love guns to turn up and vote this autumn. It may also spur those on the opposite side of the debate.