NEW YORK – Look anywhere in this nation born of a bloody revolution of musket fire, and you’re likely to find sharp disagreement over guns.
Democrats war with Republicans; small towns are pitted against cities. Women and men are at odds, as are blacks and whites and old and young. North clashes with South, East with West.
“The current gun debate is more polarized and sour than any time before in American history,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA and author of the 2011 book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
Still numb from the latest mass shooting, in Orlando, it’s easy to imagine that guns have always divided us this way. But a close look at survey data over decades shows they haven’t.
There was a time when most citizens favored banning handguns, the chief gun lobbyists supported firearm restrictions, and courts hadn’t yet interpreted the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a personal right to bear arms for self-defense at home.
Today, in a country of hundreds of millions of guns, public opinion and interpretation of the law have shifted so much that outright gun bans are unthinkable. It’s true that large segments of the public have expressed support for some aspects of gun regulation – but when Americans have been asked to say which is more important, gun control or gun rights, they trend toward the latter.
That shift has come, perhaps surprisingly, as fewer Americans today choose to keep a gun in their home. The General Social Survey by NORC at the University of Chicago – one of the foremost authorities on gun ownership – found 31 percent of households had guns in 2014, down from a high of 50.4 percent in 1977.
“Institutions have repeated, ‘More guns, less crime. More guns, less crime,’ over and over again for almost 40 years, and it’s hard to turn that belief around in any easy way,” said Joan Burbick, an emeritus professor at Washington State University who wrote “Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy” and who owns a gun for hobby shooting.
Among the longest-existing measures of public gun sentiment is a Gallup poll question asking whether there should be a law banning handguns except by police and other authorized people. When it was first asked, in July 1959, 60 percent of respondents approved of such a measure.
By last October, only 27 percent agreed.
Many point to a single date as crucial in the societal shift: May 21, 1977, when a contingent of National Rifle Association members staged a revolt that remade the group’s leadership, scuttled plans for a retreat from politics and sealed a rightward, hard-line shift. It led to a fundamental remaking of the NRA, which had come to accept some gun laws, including the Gun Control Act of 1968.
“That was the moment, in one evening, when the gun debate in America radically changed,” Winkler said.
The gun lobby’s increasingly powerful voice found receptive ears among a public left uneasy by civil rights battles, assassinations and growing urban lawlessness. Over time, statehouses and Congress bowed to the influence of the NRA and its allies. And in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared Americans have the right to a gun for self-defense.
“What they (gun rights advocates) did is a classic example of how you make constitutional change: They realized they needed to win in the court of public opinion before you could win in the court of law,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and author of “The Second Amendment: A Biography.”
The NRA did not respond to an interview request. But data from the GSS and the Pew Research Center offers a sketch of what the gun-owning populace looks like today: Overwhelmingly white and male, concentrated in rural areas, and more often identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party. They also have higher incomes and are more likely to vote.
Although polarization appears in broad questions on gun rights, far more consensus emerges on individual proposals.
A Pew poll released in August showed 85 percent of people support background checks for purchases at gun shows and in private sales; 79 percent support laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns; 70 percent approve of a federal database to track gun sales; and 57 percent favor a ban on assault weapons.
“The fact is it’s not divisive. The things that we’re advocating in the American public, when you’re talking about keeping guns out of dangerous hands, we all agree,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “The only place where this is truly a controversial issue is, tragically and disgracefully, in Congress and in our statehouses across the country.”