After every mass shooting, partisans retreat to their respective corners on gun control. The National Rifle Association, and the gun owners it represents, are critical forces in our politics, but they may be winning only with Republican voters and in Republican states. Matt Grossmann talks to Mark Joslyn about new research showing gun owners are moving further apart politically from non-gun-owners, with each developing a partisan culture. He also talks to Jay Barth about a new study showing that Obama’s elections and NRA influence have accelerated gun policy adoption in the U.S. states, with Republican states deregulation guns and Democratic states regulating them.

The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.You can subscribe to the Political Research Digest on iTunes here.


Grossmann:  This week on Political Research Digest, how gun ownership is polarizing our public and dividing our states on gun policy. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

After every mass shooting, partisans retreat to their respective corners on gun control. The National Rifle Association and the gun owners it represents are critical forces in our politics. But they may be winning only with Republican voters and in Republican states.

A new article entitled “Emerging Political Identities, Gun Ownership, and Voting in Presidential Elections,” published in Social Science Quarterly, finds that gun owners and non-gun owners are increasingly divided in voting.

I talked to Mark Joslyn of the University of Kansas about gun culture and Republican partisanship. He co-authored with Donald Haider-Markel, Micheal Baggs, and Andrew Bilbo. It might look like nothing is happening on gun policy, but that ignores a lot of recent actions in the states.

I also talked to Jay Barth, of Hendrix College, about a new study he co-authored in Social Science Quarterly with Gary Reich called “Planting Infertile Soil: The NRA and State Fire Arms Legislation.” It argues that states are moving in opposite directions on gun policy, following their ideologies, the boom in gun sales under President Obama, and the NRA’s political spending.

Political scientists traditionally argue that gun control is the classic case of an intense minority repeatedly winning over an apathetic majority. Mark Joslyn says that might be right, but there has been significant partisan change since the 1970s, with gun owners and non-gun owners moving to their respective partisan homes.

Joslyn: Gun owners are far more likely to vote Republican than non-gun owners. Although that may sound quite obvious, there has been no research on that before, and so we’ve been able to show that. Also, that the difference between gun owners and non-gun owners, in terms of probability of voting Republican, has increased over time, the spread is quite significant. So we looked at from 1970s until the 2012 election, that spread between gun owners and non-gun owners and their likelihood of voting Republican has increased.

Grossmann: They found gun ownership had an independent effect on presidential voting. Though some of its impact had already been incorporated into American partisan and ideological identities.

Joslyn: It tracks, very closely, with the polarization we see in partisanship. In fact, the graphic we have in the article looks a lot like the split in Democrat and Republicans across the years. So it is in part incorporated already. Guns is certainly a partisan issue, ideological one, as well. To that extent, the bivariate relationship doesn’t give us a lot. Because, just by itself, it could be tracking one’s party identification as opposed to one’s gun ownership. In fact, if you look at gun ownership over time, since the 1970s, Republicans have generally remained about constant in terms of the proportion of Republicans owning guns. Whereas Independents and Democrats have declined significantly.

Grossmann: Joslyn says gun culture is real, but there may also be a rise in anti-gun culture.

Joslyn: You can think of non-gun owners identity and opposition to gun owners in particular, opposed to guns. Democrats, urban individuals, females, liberals, African Americans, are very much opposed, in terms of gun ownership. Or at least want more regulation on that.

They see guns as a neglected safety, as a power item. Maybe an item of inequality. These values, together, can combine and provide a non-gun owner identity in just the position to what gun owners feel. What we found in the data is that a large part of the gap in terms of voting for Republicans, really on the non-gun owner side, gun owners represent about a third of the population, so the non-gun owners would be the rest.

We don’t think it’s as cohesive, but nonetheless, after mass shootings, after big gun events, you can definitely see the division. There might be, in fact, identity in terms of your opposition to gun owners.

Grossmann: The NRA is an important force in driving gun politics in culture.

Joslyn: The NRA is a big part of the cause of the identity for gun owners, although, most gun owners are not members of the NRA. But nonetheless, there is a large powerful interest group that represents gun owners, and represents, in extreme ways, some of the values that the gun owners believe in.

So, they have a voice, a larger, cultural voice out there. So, we think that’s a very important institution, an increasingly powerful one that fortifies, and reinforces the value structure that we see as an identity for gun owners.

Grossmann: Since both sides see themselves as representing safety, mass shootings don’t move the debate forward.

Joslyn: It’s clearly a partisan issue. People are dug in for certain on this. There’s a lot of finger pointing both ways. It’s just amazing to us how far apart people are on this. When gun owners, many of them, anyway, really do see guns and gun ownership, and support of gun policies as safety. They do not see it in other way.

In the opposition to guns, see it as just the opposite. That guns represent a neglect of safety and are actually dangerous items. I don’t see how they could be farther apart. The Concealed Carry laws only widen some of these issues and drive a wedge between people.

Grossmann: But, in other research, Joslyn does find some evidence that the partisan identity of the shooter might matter.

Joslyn: A Republican was shot. A Republican legislator. What we was there was a little bit of a change. Depending who the target is, at least at the level of a politician, the mass public changes a little bit in terms of their notion of what was the cause and what can be done.

Generally, Democrats suggest the causes are systemic, and therefore policy should occur. Republicans tend to default to the causes of mass shooting are individualized. Crazy person with an individual problem. Therefore, we don’t have a real policy response that would be likely in that case.

When the Republican was shot this summer, you saw many more Republicans at the mass level pointing to systemic problems.

Grossmann: Joslyn says mass shootings may cause state policy change, even if federal policy is stagnant.

Joslyn: Where mass shootings occur, there are movements toward reform of gun policies. Particularly in legislators. Legislative bodies that are controlled by Democrats in states that have mass gun shootings. In that sense, federalism is responding. Although Washington D.C. is not, the local governments and state governments do respond.

Grossmann:  I also spoke to Jay Barth, who’s been researching the rash of gun policy changes in the U.S. States.

Barth: I think so much attention over the years has been given to the battle over gun policy at the federal level, then particularly the NRA’s engagement at that level. But, I think we know that over the last few years, especially a period of real inaction at the federal level, there has been a huge proliferation of activity at the state level. So, I think we’ve turned our attention to that area. I think that’s am important first step.

Barth: Of course, what we find is a somewhat complicated picture, in that while most of the legislation at the state level has been in a direction that has really liberalized policy that has made guns more accessible, we do have some states where most of the activity has been more in a gun control direction. So, we tried to ask the question, “Well, why does that pattern show itself? What separates those states that have become very liberal with their gun laws over the last number of years, from those that really have headed in a different direction?”

Grossmann: The NRA’s actions in the states have been making a difference.

Barth: Even control for ideology at the legislature, and control for a variety of other factors, it is also the fact that is those places where the NRA spends money combined with a lot of angst among the citizenry about the possibility of federal activism as show by upticks in gun sales around the two elections of President Obama. It’s that combination that really has additional power in explaining the wins and losses on liberalizing gun policy

Grossmann: But the NRA has only been successful in states that also had surges in gun sales surrounding Obama’s elections.

Barth: If there’s backlash without the NRA’s engagement, the form of spending, the creation of a network and really getting the messaging out, that doesn’t really seem to have a good bang with the legislature, and vice- versa. The NRA spends money in a place where there’s really not much appetite in the citizenry for change. Then, that’s not particularly money well spent.

Grossmann: Barth says the conventional story of the NRA only blocking change isn’t true in the states.

Barth: I think unquestionably the NRA has influence in staffing even the most minimal gun regulation at the Federal level. That is defensive play.  There’s an indication that in certain states, the NRA has to play defense as well at the state level. But, the one area where they really have some places where they can be on offense is at the state level, in certain states. States that have those contexts that really are favorable to them.

It’s also very clear that that NRA has been very conscious about selecting certain battles in certain states. I think they really give some strong signals nationally.

Grossmann: The NRA doesn’t need many resources because they have committed activists.

Barth: I mean, they can do this on the cheap in a lot of ways. I think especially when it’s done via social media, and social networking, that’s pretty cheap. That’s a viral video created that never really has to be aired on commercial television. It can all be spread via the web. I think this can be pretty affordably done.

Barth: What we see is that that NRA has cut back on direct contributions to candidates, for the most part, in the states. It’s really just an additional resource to go to creating and maintaining these networks and activists.

Grossmann: Obama’s two elections not only stimulated gun sales booms, but also new legislation. To liberalize gun laws in some states, and increase restrictions in others. But, increasing access and the right to carry was the dominant trend. Barth says it was the perceived threat of federal action.

Barth: We saw some circumstantial evidence for it being about reactions to him as a person. But, we could never find the real clear direct evidence. What we found was really his victories did provoke a good deal of fear on the part of those folks who care deeply about maintaining and enhancing gun freedom. What we found some more evidence of was kind of fear of the policy direction that the country was going to head under Obama, rather than fear of the president himself, and what he might do, and his attitudes about guns.

Grossmann: As a result, we’re a polarized nation with very different gun laws by state.

Barth: You know, it’s an area where we see federalism at work in terms of states and their citizens really being in very different places and attitudes about this area of policy. Whether that’s about the sorting of citizens into different states, or cultural norms that have really been handed down around time. We really are two different Americas when it comes to gun policy. To some degree, state lines correlate with some of that division that we see.

Grossmann: Joslyn sees no signs that things will be changing any time soon.

Joslyn: Immediately after the shootings, both sides go into their particular corners. The rhetoric is very familiar. So, congregational response is very familiar. So, I don’t think we’ve learned anything new, per se.

Grossmann: Barth says it’s too early to say whether efforts by Mike Bloomberg and others can match the NRA.

Barth: Money and a network of activists are the great combination. Where other places where they’re going to be significant numbers of gun control activists who can really create the personal dynamic advocating for gun control. That’s more challenging for gun control activists because there just aren’t that many places outside of the most urban parts of America where that’s really gonna be the case.

Grossmann: For Barth, the biggest remaining question is how much gun politics are intertwined with the politics of race.

Barth: I think there is a very interesting and important area of inquiry around, and a play of race and attitudes about guns. Because, even though the President is no longer an African American, we still do seem to have an aura of race that really does surround this whole issue we have.

We’ve certainly seen different reactions by the NRA to different shootings based on race of the victim, I think we’ve also seen white and black Americans respond very different to these issues. I do think there is a lot of work to be done in better understanding the interplay of race.

Grossmann: Joslyn says there’s lot of questions remaining unanswered. But he suspects gun ownership has wide implications for American politics.

Joslyn: There are many other possible items that guns would matter for. For example, our next piece of research coming out is going to show that gun owners are far more likely to vote than non-gun owners. There’s just a multitude of possibilities because guns are a commitment to a particular set of values that make a big difference politically, both in their behavior and their attitudes.

Grossmann: Thanks for listening. Political Research Digest is bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann.

Thanks to Mark Joslyn and Jay Barth for joining me. Join us next time to find out whether multi-racial coalitions of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians can succeed in building effective minority representation.