If this election said anything about the politics of guns, it showed that the alignment between political ideology and gun ownership is just about as fixed as it can be. If you are a pro-gun politician in a red state, the gun issue won’t help you win a close race because everyone in the red states tends to be pro-gun. If you are a pro-gun politician in a blue state, however, try as you might, the pro-gun folks just can’t swing an election your way and gun control initiatives have a good chance to succeed.
Last year, right around the anniversary of Sandy Hook, the New York Times ran a state-by-state analysis of new gun statutes that were passed and signed into law. It turned out that more than 1,500 measures were introduced into state legislatures, of which 39 tightened laws tightened what the Times called “restrictions” and 70 loosened them. The study showed, not surprisingly, that most of the more restrictive laws were passed where Democrats hold a majority of the legislative seats and the Governor’s Mansion or both, whereas the less-restrictive laws were passed in states that are politically red.
In last week’s election the alignment of red and blue states with looser or tighter gun laws continued its usual course. Washington passed I-594 because going directly to the voters was a way of getting around a legislature which is more blue than red but has some Democrats representing areas away from the Coast where gun ownership is supported on both sides. On the other hand, Alabama passed an amendment to the State Constitution that gave every resident the right to bear arms and required any gun control laws to be subject to ‘strict scrutiny,’ which basically means that no gun control laws will ever be passed. Could an amendment bringing back the poll tax pass a statewide vote in the Cotton State? Probably.
The interesting twist in all of this came in a blue state – Connecticut – where the incumbent Governor held on to win by a thin margin in an election that many thought would go the other day. The Governor, Dan Malloy, held on to beat Tom Foley, who was challenging him for the second time and Foley tried to remind the voters again and again that if elected, he would try to undo the tough, new gun law that Malloy pushed through the legislature after Sandy Hook. After the bill went into effect stories circulated about how thousands and thousands of CT residents were refusing to register their assault rifles, but when all was said and done, nobody thought to call out the police to ransack homes and drag in all these alleged non-compliant owners of black guns.
Foley never actually said he would repeal Malloy’s gun law even though again and again he said it went “too far.” But criticizing the new law was one thing, taking credit for it was something else. And a new poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress suggests that Malloy may actually owe his razor-thin victory, in part, to how voters, particularly female voters responded to his legislation on guns. It turns out that 43% of nearly 700 voters said that the gun bill made them more likely to send the Governor back to office for another four years, while only 31% felt less likely to vote for him over the gun issue and support for universal background checks among women ran 50 to 19.
It will be interesting to see if the gun issue will play a significant role in the run-up to 2016. It’s clearly still a “niche” issue, and niche issues can swing tight elections as the Foley campaign found out. The NRA, whose own approval numbers appear to be slipping, has been trying to sell the idea for years that gun ownership is a basic civil right. It might be a line that sells in Peoria, but it’s not working in parts of the country that still vote blue.