WASHINGTON – A series of high-profile mass shootings that have left communities grieving is renewing the country’s fierce debates over the place of firearms in American society and the merits of gun control.
In less than a week, 18 people died from gun violence in two mass shootings. On March 16, a gunman in Atlanta targeted multiple local businesses, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. On Monday in Boulder, Colorado, a man opened fire into a King Soopers grocery store, killing 10 people, including one police officer.
Nationwide, there have been 103 mass shooting incidents in 2021. But amid them, there is a widening chasm between how Republicans and Democrats are legislating on access to firearms.
Democrats call for limits on guns
On one side, the violence has reignited calls for greater gun control legislation, a desire Democratic lawmakers are intent on fulfilling.
“For the second time in a week, our nation is being confronted by the epidemic of gun violence,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday. “Action is needed now to prevent this scourge from continuing to ravage our communities.”
President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday the Senate should “immediately pass the two House bills that would close loopholes in the background system,” referencing legislation that would expand the number of instances when a background check is necessary for purchasing or transferring a firearm.
“We should also ban assault weapons in the process,” the president said, echoing a long-held Democratic goal and a policy Biden himself helped enact in the 1990s.
Democratic lawmakers, who have unified control of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, are also pushing for more stringent screenings on the sale of weapons to people with criminal records, mental illnesses and past abusive behavior.
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Republicans expand access to firearms
Yet in many Republican-dominated states, lawmakers are expanding access to firearms, arguing that such “constitutional carry” measures better protect individual liberties and public safety.
On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee thanked members of the National Rifle Association for helping to push a bill through the state legislature that would remove Tennessee’s permit requirement to carry a handgun.
“What’s most important here is we allow the rights of law-abiding citizens to be protected,” Lee said. The law is part of the first-term Republican governor’s broader “public safety agenda.”
Lee emphasized that “none of us want gun violence,” adding, “we’re working really hard in our state and in the legislature to bring forth laws that increase penalties for violent offenders.”
In Iowa, a similar bill also would remove the state’s permit requirements to acquire or carry handguns, along with a loosening of other restrictions. It is headed to the governor’s desk in the coming days.
“Currently, whether we want to admit it or not, our system of permits is one of mistrust,” Republican state Sen. Jason Schultz, the bill’s sponsor, said on the Iowa Senate floor. “That means you can exercise a fundamental right, but you must prove yourself not guilty in advance. That is not how America is supposed to work.”
In February, Indiana’s state legislature also voted to eliminate requirements for permits to carry a gun. Other states, including Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina, are considering similar legislation.
Seventeen states already have constitutional carry laws on the books.
A complex cultural divide
The current drive of gun control legislation is both a byproduct of the Republican dominance of many state governments and a widening gap between the parties on gun policy, according to scholars.
The recent success of many gun rights activists, like the National Rifle Association, “can be explained by the number of states over the last decade that have at some point been Republican trifectas of governance,” says Matthew Lacombe, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College who studies the National Rifle Association and gun cultures around the U.S.
“In other states, we’ve also seen expanded gun regulation and those are often places where Democrats hold power. The sort of the gridlock we associate with national politics is less present so movement is more possible in either direction,” Lacombe said of why movement on the issue has been so swift.
While polls consistently find strong support for measures like universal background checks or “red flag laws,” partisan polarization on the issue increasingly obscures the policies actually being debated, according to Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“The main reason is the degree to which Republicans have bought the NRA rhetoric,” said Siegel, who has closely surveyed gun owners and gun violence. The group “has essentially portrayed the fight over gun control legislation as a culture war. It has broadened the issue from ‘How should we protect gun safety?’ to ‘What kind of culture do we have?’”
In reality, public opinion on guns is both much more complex and united than public discourse might imply.
Few prospects for consensus
But with Democrats in Washington and statehouses across the country increasingly animated by calls for greater gun control, the already bitter partisan divide over firearms is poised to further widen.
Whether any gun control legislation will be passed into, law, however, is contingent on whether Democrats in the Senate can garner 10 votes from Republicans to break the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate on any bill.
The threshold is a daunting one for gun control or any legislation, especially as moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have expressed opposition to the legislation passed by the House.
Opinions outside the beltway further complicate the situation. While majorities of Americans are supportive of stronger gun control legislation, including a majority of Republicans on key policy changes, resistance to such measures varies greatly by demographic.
Gun owners and non-gun owners agree on some policy changes, like stopping the severely mentally ill from accessing weapons. But a 2017 Pew survey found large gaps between gun-owning Americans and non-gun owners on a range of commonly debated proposals. And while 40% of American households report having at least one gun in their home, the country also sees wide divides in gun ownership between states, partly reflecting an urban-rural divide.
A recent survey published by Siegel and his colleagues also found wide divides between gun owners based on the model of the guns they own. Gun owners who own models the study classified as used for recreational or defense reasons were much more likely to support gun control measures than owners who had tactical models, which included many designs generally described as assault weapons.
Rural Americans were also far more likely to cite recreational reasons for having a gun, like hunting, while urban and suburban gun owners were most likely to cite self-defense as their reason for owning a gun.
“There is no singular gun culture, there are many subcultures and there are many different types of gun cultures,” Siegel said. “Within each state, there is a mix of cultures and when describing U.S. gun cultures there is a multidimensional aspect,” to guns and gun owners that cannot be ignored, Siegel emphasized.
Urban and suburban voters are more accepting of gun control measures than their rural counterparts, a conflict partly driving the current divergence between states pursuing greater gun control measures and those seeking to expand gun access.
Colorado and Virginia, both once solidly conservative states that shifted to the left over the past decade, saw fierce battles in their state legislatures over gun control as Democrats contended with entrenched gun cultures outside the populous urban and suburban regions that handed them governing power.
Nationally, the country remains closely divided on the issue. While 56% of the public is dissatisfied with the country’s current gun laws, according to a February Gallup poll, only 41% of the public consequently wants stricter codes. A November Gallup also found that while a majority of the public, 57%, wants stricter gun control measures, that number has trended down from a record high of 67% in 2018, after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
A clear partisan divide also hamstrings gun control efforts. The February Gallup poll found that 69% of Republicans are either very or somewhat satisfied with the country’s current approach to firearms, compared to only 22% of Democrats.
Republicans have also become more obstinate on the issue over time. In 2004, 56% of Republican-leaning voters thought it was more important to protect Americans’ right to own a gun than to control gun ownership, compared with 29% of Democrats that year, according to the Pew Research Center.
In October 2019, after over a decade of high-profile mass shootings that rocked the country’s politics, 80% of Republicans believed protecting gun rights should be prioritized over gun control measures. For Democrats, the number had dropped to 21%.
“For a lot of people, gun ownership is a very important lens through which people view politics, but for many others, it has just become another part of their partisan lens,” Lacombe said.
The sharp splits over gun control across the country are not intimidating national Democrats, who see the issue as necessary and politically advantageous.
“This is our moment to make our stand. NOW,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an outspoken advocate for gun control, tweeted after the shooting in Boulder.
There have been 103 mass shootings in 2021 so far, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as any incident where four or more people were shot or killed, excluding the gunman. Of those incidents, there have been six mass killings this year, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines as an incident where four or more people are shot and killed.
The U.S. is an outlier among developed countries in both the levels of gun ownership and gun violence in the country. 2020 was a record year for gun sales with nearly 40 million firearms sold last year and 4.1 million more purchased by Americans in January 2021 alone. Last year also saw a record for the number of deaths because of gun violence; over 41,500 people were reported killed in gun-related incidents.