Public Opinion and the Senate Votes on Gun Control

Brian Schaffner sends this graph and commentary:



The Senate voted down new restrictions on gun ownership on Wednesday, drawing the ire of President Obama and a number of other politicians and pundits who, among other things, pointed to the Senate’s actions as contrary to public opinion on the issue. But to what extent did senators really vote in opposition to their constituents on this issue?

The 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study asked respondents whether they felt that “the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are?” 54,451 respondents provided an answer to this question, allowing more than sufficient numbers to generate meaningful samples in each state. This chart shows the proportion of respondents in each state who said that gun laws should be made more strict. The color of each state indicates the number of senators from that state who voted in favor of the assault weapons ban on Wednesday. Blue states were those where two senators voted in favor of the ban, red states are those where two senators voted against, and purple states saw their senators split on the vote.

Note that in every state where a majority favored stricter gun laws at least one of the two senators voted in favor of the assault weapons ban. On the other hand, only 17 of the 74 senators representing states where fewer than 50% of citizens wanted stricter regulations voted in favor of the ban. Also challenging for gun control advocates is the fact that while only 13 of the 50 states had 50% or higher support for stricter gun laws, many of these are the most populous states. In fact, about 45% of the U.S. population lives in these 13 states, yet those states account for only 26% of the Senate’s membership. The populations of California, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York are some of the strongest supporters of stricter gun laws, but their voice in the Senate is the same as much smaller states whose populations comprise some of the biggest opponents, such as South Dakota, Alaska, Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Utah.

11 Responses to Public Opinion and the Senate Votes on Gun Control

  1. Peter April 18, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    To what extent is it problematic that this is pre-Newtown data?

  2. Adam April 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Interesting idea, and cool graphic. But might something have happened since the CCES was in the field that could limit its applicability to the current policy debate?

  3. Mala Htun April 18, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    good points and analysis, but i’m not sure it’s relevant to yesterday’s vote. the generic question about favoring stricter gun laws is not what was on the table yesterday in the Manchin-Toomey amendment. Rather, it was about extending background checks to gun shows and internet sales. Polling by Luntz and others shows that many, many people favoring loose gun laws are nonetheless in favor of background checks.

  4. Craig April 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    So the Senate vote(s) was not some horrible miscarriage of democratic government, but is apparently consistent with general majority views of the overall gun issue.

    However, the whole point of a written constitution & express bill of rights is to put certain things beyond the power of majorities to change by simple ad hoc votes … either in Congress or the general population. Polling data is moot.

    “… shall not be infringed” is an extremely strong statement of fundamental law, not subject to (Constitutional) Senate vote… nor telephone opinion surveys.

    • JG April 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

      Not so fast, CCES was conducted prior to the Newtown Massacre and public opinion on several items has moved after that ‘exogenous shock.’ So that miscarriage of democratic government probably did happen…though with a keen eye on future primary elections.

      Regardless, it is not as if the Senate was voting to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Despite that phrase, “Shall not be infringed,” Congress can still use its power to require background checks and even ban the use/possession of various types of firearms and their accessories.

  5. cara April 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    What is the Y-axis here – or are the states simply listed vertically? If so, in what order are they organized? (Label your axes, people!)

    • John Sides April 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

      There is no y-axis. The states are listed vertically in order of the proportion who said gun laws should be stricter.

  6. Todd Phillips April 19, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    This article is interesting but fatally flawed. Asking whether or not Americas need stricter gun laws leads to a binary answer–yes or no. The Senate was considering a variety of specific measures that many people who said no to “stricter gun laws” might have agreed with. So many problems in our democracy stem from simplifying complex issues in this way. Soooo many.

  7. Stan April 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Notice something else? Support for gun control follows urban and rural population. The more independent the area (rural) the less gun control is wanted, the more dependent on government services the more gun control. This is the continuing battle between city and country. Dates back to Rome!

  8. Ralph Skaggs April 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    After looking at the graph and then at how the senators voted, it seems some were lying at the time of the survey. Ones up for re-election or are up the next election cycle said they are against gun control. But then voted for it. Please remember POLITICIANS LIE, A LOT. It is the order of the day these days. That is the shameful thing in Washington, DC Mr. President…….

    • JG April 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

      Lets not confuse lying with strategic positioning. Moreover, the survey covers a representative sample of the population, it is not a poll of the Senate.