Gun Debate Highlights Voter Distrust of Government


Gun control advocates sound puzzled by congressional resistance to relatively modest gun control legislation. Many cite a poll showing 90 percent of Americans support more background checks and suggest the National Rifle Association is the only reason Congress won’t implement the will of the people.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, it implies that Congress normally does what voters want. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most voters consistently opposed the Wall Street bailout, the president’s health care law and the cash-for-clunkers plan. All became law.

Voters overwhelmingly support term limits, an end to the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, and an end to congressional pensions. But nobody’s holding his or her breath for any of those things to become law.

Most voters also believe cutting government spending would be good for the U.S. economy, but total government spending in America has gone up every single year since 1954.

As the above list highlights, the Political Class typically gets what it wants regardless of public opinion. What’s unusual about the gun control debate is that the Political Class appears to be stymied in one of those rare instances when it appears to agree with public opinion.

Public opinion is more complicated than gun control advocates want to acknowledge, however, and there is real political risk in voting for the proposed legislation.

Expanding background checks for would-be gun owners is a commonsense proposal much like requiring a photo ID before someone is allowed to vote. Both have overwhelming support.

But while people think requiring more background checks makes sense, most don’t think it will make much of a difference. Only 41 percent believe more background checks will reduce gun violence.

Second, people want to make sure the checks are limited to only restricting convicted felons and those with serious mental health issues. Only 30 percent want broader background checks.

Third, just 40 percent want to see a national database of gun owners created. This last point really frustrates some advocates of gun control, including President Obama.

In Denver last week, he said, “You hear some of these quotes: ‘I need a gun to protect myself from the government.’ ‘We can’t do background checks because the government is going to come take my guns away.’ Well, the government is us. These officials are elected by you.”

On one level, the president is right. If people trusted the government, there would be no reason to be concerned about background checks. But only one in five voters believes the government currently has the consent of the governed.

Half the nation views the federal government as a threat to individual liberties rather than a protector of those rights. Sixty-five percent recognize that the purpose of Second Amendment gun control rights is protection against tyranny, and 44 percent believe it’s likely the government will try to confiscate all privately owned guns over the next generation.

This helps explain why the legislation is struggling in Congress. People like the idea of background checks but don’t think they’ll make much difference. They’re also suspicious about the motives of those in government.

In the end, those who would like to see stronger federal restrictions on gun ownership should start by supporting reforms that will enable the government to re-earn the trust of the American people.

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