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Gun owners’ intensity turns ‘minority in American politics’ into outsized force

September 5, 2018

Gun ownership is a stronger predictor of a person’s political activity than factors such as gender, age and education, according to a study that helps explain why mass shootings have done little to advance the cause of advocates calling for stiffer laws.

The intensity of gun owners has made them an outsized political force over the past four decades, according to the study, released this week from the University of Kansas.

“In virtually every form you look at contacting elected officials, signing petitions or contributing to campaigns you see higher participation rates amongst gun owners versus non-gun owners,” said Don Haider-Markel, chairman of the university’s political science department and one of the study’s authors.

Gun owners have long been the envy of other political movements, and the research helps explain why.

In presidential elections from 1972 to 2012, Mr. Haider-Markel said, the rate of voting has risen among gun owners and ticked down among those who don’t own guns. He said the authors saw a similar pattern in 2016 as well.

Gun control advocates insist that is changing and that they now hold the political momentum, particularly in the wake of this year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

But such predictions have been made after other shootings and failed to materialize.

The strength of gun rights voters has been credited with pushing Congress to resist new restrictions such as tighter gun purchase background checks, even as polling shows broad support for those moves among the general public.

“Part of the reason majority opinions on gun control legislation aren’t turning into policy is that gun owners are a very strong political group who hold a lot of weight and hold a lot of influence despite being a minority in American politics,” said Abigail Vegter, a graduate student in political science at Kansas and another co-author of the report.

The authors said one reason for gun owners’ high rates of activism could be that they increasingly associate their ownership with defending the core constitutional right to self-defense rather than hobbies such as hunting or shooting.

The study found that more than 60 percent of gun owners in the 1980s reported that they owned guns for hunting. Less than 25 percent said they owned guns for protection.

Those percentages have flipped, the study said. A majority now say they own guns for protection, and a growing percentage say they own guns because it’s their right or because of the Second Amendment.

“Owning a gun for hunting doesn’t necessarily mean being a hunter is a core part of your identity,” Ms. Vegter said. “But owning a gun because you think it’s an essential right guaranteed in the Constitution is more a part of your political identity. It’s something more attached from the get-go to politics.”

Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said the study confirms that his side trumps gun control activists in their level of intensity.

He pointed to laments from national Democrats that a ban on military-style “assault” weapons cost the party in the 1994 and 2000 elections and said the issue helped Donald Trump in 2016.

“Donald Trump’s strong support of the Second Amendment in 2016 could single-handedly explain his pickup of enough pro-gun Democrats to win Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and thus, the election,” he said.

But Kyleanne Hunter, vice president of programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the study shows how gun owners can be swayed by “fear-driven” messaging.

She said gun owners noticeably increased their political activity from 2000 to 2004, the year the federal assault weapons ban lapsed.

“So it makes sense [if] there’s a big push to get to the polls to make sure that it doesn’t get reinstated,” she said. “And so I think that this really highlights how fear drives voter turnout, and emotion based on fear.”

She said the emotional energy is on her side in the wake of the intense news coverage of mass shootings that have left people afraid of being shot at school, church or a concert.

“That’s a very, very real fear, unlike some of the manufactured fear that’s being drummed up on the other side to drive people to vote,” she said.

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