The Politics Of Gun Control

So here’s the big question: If Harry Reid makes good on his threat to bring a gun control bill back to the Senate this year, what’s the chance that it will pass?  And the answer is: probably not very good.  And the reason that it’s not very good isn’t because the NRA is such a behemoth in the halls of Congress that they always get their way.  In fact, the NRA is very adept at taking credit for how the geography of gun ownership just happens to slant any national debate about gun control in their direction; a tilt that will probably continue for years to come. Here’s how it works.

Gun ownership in this country is skewed towards the West and the South.  It is estimated that there are 27 states in which per capita gun ownership reaches 40% or more, with  Western states like Montana and Wyoming probably having a gun in every home.  Only one Republican Senator from any of these 27 states – Susan Collins, voted for Manchin-Toomey last year, and 4 Democratic Senators from these states broke ranks with their party and also voted against the bill.

reidThe NRA doesn’t have to waste any time or resources going after votes in the 23 states that have per capita gun ownership of less than 40 percent.  All they have to do is make sure they can find enough votes in the ‘gun-rich’ states to kill any bill on the Senate floor.  And they also don’t have to spend all that much money on grass roots campaigns, telling their supporters to “flood” Congress with phone calls, emails and the like. Because together, these 27 states where gun ownership is so prevalent count less than 90 million residents; in other words, when it comes to national gun control, a majority of states hold less than 30 percent of the country’s population (and voters) as a whole.

The big problem facing gun control advocates at the federal level is that while the states that have the lowest per capita gun ownership contain a much larger overall population than the gun-rich states (these 11 states have nearly 120 million residents,) together they count only for 22 Senate votes, and that’s assuming that these 22 Senators are all Democrats, which they are not.  So in order to get a gun control bill passed and sent to the House, the battle comes down to the votes of the 24 Senators who come from 12 states where gun owners aren’t a majority, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio, states which often send Republicans to the Senate who won’t break ranks with their party’s leadership over gun control anyway.

The NRA would love a big red turnout in November as a way of keeping Obama under control during the last two years of his second term.  If this happens, both sides will spend every minute gearing up for the big one in 2016 and a gun control bill, along with probably every other piece of legislation, can go fly a kite. So in the short term, the battle over guns at the federal level will probably continue to favor the NRA.  On the other hand, in the longer term, the same demographic geography that gives less than one-third of the country’s population a veto over new gun laws may also begin to favor the other side.

What the NRA cannot change is the fact that the country is becoming more urban, more ethnically and racially diverse, and more dependent on single-parent households, all demographics that have little or no interest in owning guns.  You also don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that these changes will impact state legislatures and the shape of Congressional districts after the 2020 census which, following 2016, will only be four years away.  Given all that, I’ll take the short odds on the NRA for the next couple of years, but by the end of this current decade I’m willing to bet that even in what are now gun-rich states, you’ll begin hearing a much different tune.

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