The Myth of a Gun "Intensity Gap"

Apr 24, 2013 | Updated Jun 24, 2013
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In the wake of the failure of the Senate to pass even a modest background check bill, many around the country are still scratching their heads. How could Senators ignore a "90% issue"? Many assume the answer lies in one of two places.

First, the supposed strength of the gun lobby. As I've written about before, and as has been written elsewhere, the NRA is in danger of being exposed as a paper tiger. They had a terrible return on their investment in 2012. And even their own members feel alienated. Gallup shows only about 5% of Americans are gun owners who feel the NRA always shares their views.

The second is a misestimation of "intensity." As written here and elsewhere, 90% of Americans may support background checks, but the other 10% will be more likely to vote based on gun laws. They are more passionate, the argument goes.

While it's true the 10% may be passionate (and receive, I believe, a disproportionate amount of coverage), the polling simply does not show gun law opponents feel more strongly than gun law supporters.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, just under a third (29%) said they could not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on guns, even if they agreed on most other issues. This number is exactly the same in gun households and in non-gun households. It is essentially identical for both Democrats (29%) and Republicans (27%).

By the way, there are likely more single-issue gun voting women (33%) than men (26%), reflecting the strong gender gap on this issue I've written about before. And this Center for American Progress poll shows candidates slightly more likely to be punished for an NRA endorsement than rewarded, overall and with younger voters.

A recent Fox News poll actually shows more than twice as many voters will move away from a candidate who is against background checks than will move toward one. Two-thirds (68%) of voters (including 57% of Republicans and 60% of those in gun households) said they'd be more likely to support a candidate who expanded background checks. Only a quarter (23%) would be more likely to support a candidate against background checks, including 29% of Republicans and 28% of those in gun households.

And unsurprisingly for specific gun laws with majority support, there is more intensity for support than opposition. As Mark Blumenthal and Emily Swanson observed, in that recent WP/ABC poll, three-fourths (76%) strongly support universal background checks, 45% strongly support an assault weapons ban (30% strong oppose), and 44% strongly support a ban on high capacity magazines (31% strong oppose).

So no, there is no gap in intensity hurting the fight for stronger gun laws. There is simply a gap between public opinion and Senate votes. Maybe Senators are concerned about primary challenges, or have a distorted fear of the NRA. But no reading of the polls could lead to the conclusion that this is the outcome voters wanted.