WASHINGTON--Ever since last week’s defeat of new gun control measures in the Senate, advocates have talked up the possibility that public outrage could turn a short-term loss into long-term victory for their cause.
Maybe not, new polling suggests.
While more Americans (47%) reported a negative reaction to the Senate action than a positive one (39%), the poll, done by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that the kind of strong feelings that build political campaigns mostly lay on the pro-gun side of the debate.
Those who said they felt “very happy” over the Senate action significantly outnumbered those who called themselves “angry” – 20% to 15%. Among those who had a negative reaction to the Senate action, most called themselves not “angry,” but “disappointed” (32%). Those who felt positively about the Senate’s action split almost evenly between “very happy” and “relieved” at 19%.
That finding reinforces a point that political operatives with long experience in the gun control debate often make: The gun rights side of the debate includes more people with intense feelings about the issue.
The overall close reaction to the outcome might seem to contradict the statistic, often cited by President Obama, about overwhelming public support for the central element of the bill that failed in the Senate – a requirement that most purchases of guns go through a background check. Obama repeatedly said that 90% of Americans support background checks.
Polling does indicate support at or near that level, 83% in a Pew poll taken in February.
But the contradiction is more apparent than real. Americans answer questions about gun control in two very different ways, depending on how the issue gets framed. Ask about specifics, and the public broadly supports several gun control measures, including background checks. But when asked about the broader question of whether more gun controls are a good idea, Americans split much more closely.
That same Pew poll from February that found overwhelming support for background checks also found Americans split almost evenly on whether a higher priority should go to gun control (50%) or protecting the rights of gun owners (46%).
The split reaction to the gun bill’s defeat suggests that the public saw the debate as a general one about gun control versus gun rights rather than a more specific one about background checks.
Politically, the gun vote seems most likely to deepen the split between the two parties, rather than to change very many people’s partisanship. Feelings about the vote very closely followed some of the main lines of division between the Democratic and Republican political coalitions.
People with postgraduate degrees, who have become a mainstay of the Democratic coalition, were among the most likely to say they felt “angry” about the Senate’s decision, with 31% giving that answer, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Other demographic groups that were more likely than average to call themselves “angry” were residents of the Northeast (26%), self-identified Democrats (26%) and women (19%). That could indicate that the gun debate will create more headwinds for Republicans in the Northeast, a region where they have steadily lost ground in recent elections, and with highly educated voters.
Conversely, the gun debate probably will create further trouble for Democrats among whites without a college education, a very large chunk of the electorate among whom Democrats have lost ground. Slightly more than 1 in 4 non-college-educated whites said they were “very happy” about the outcome of the gun vote, making them one of the groups most likely to say that.