By Dan Sally
In the past four weeks, America has experienced mass shootings at a medical clinic in Oklahoma, a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. While prior mass shootings resulted in little political action in terms of restrictions on gun ownership, increased funding for the enforcement of existing gun laws, or mental health, this time appears to be different.
At the time of writing, a bipartisan group of senators are negotiating the terms of a gun safety reform bill that would place additional restrictions on gun ownership for the first time in almost 30 years. Whether these negotiations will result in any legislation is up for debate, but the fact there are negotiations at all is an improvement.
What’s most surprising about the Senate making progress on the issue is that it’s surprising at all. Throughout the almost decade-long political stalemate on gun control, both the public and law enforcement have remained largely supportive of a number of measures to reduce gun violence.
After looking at the numbers, the real surprise should be why this issue has been so difficult to legislate on in the first place.
The Consensus on Gun Violence
In 2018, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released this position paper on reforms that could reduce gun violence. Among these measures were requiring background checks for all firearm sales and creating a national firearms offender registry to prevent those deemed dangerous to the community from purchasing guns
These are measures largely supported by the public as well. In a recent poll by CBS/YouGov, 72% of conservatives, who tend to be less inclined to support gun control measures,supported a federal law supporting background checks. The same poll showed 72% support for red-flag laws among the public at large, with 54% of conservatives supporting the measure.
Despite the strong level of support across partisan lines, the background check requirement has been omitted from the Senate’s version of the current gun control bill, and an amended version of the red flag provision is under debate.
Equally surprising is the difficulty of keeping gun laws from being relaxed in some states. In recent years, law enforcement in states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana have pushed back on efforts to make it easier to purchase and carry a firearm, stating these laws endanger the lives of police officers and the citizens they serve.
Signs the System Isn’t Working
The issue around gun control has been labeled as controversial due to political inaction, yet it seems there’s a large amount of agreement on the issue amongst voters. Given this, the question should be why it’s taken for granted that such widely popular measures will be impossible to pass in a functioning democracy?
The current state of political inaction isn’t reflective of a wide disagreement on gun safety but of the built-in flaws in our electoral system that enable vocal minorities to have such an outsized sway in our political process.
While red-flag laws and background checks are popular with the public at large, the public at large doesn’t take part in the partisan primaries that determine who’ll run for office. With almost 80% of congressional districts being “safe seats” for one party or the other, the primary effectively serves as the general election. Since primary voter turnout is typically very low – usually in the ballpark of 15-20% of registered voters – only a very small percentage of voters choose 80% of those who sit in the House of Representatives.
Before we can expect effective legislation to be passed on any issue, we need a system that’s responsive to public opinion first. Implementing open, nonpartisan primaries in which all candidates compete with each other for the right to advance to a ranked choice general election would help us elect officials who are accountable to the entire population, not just a narrow, partisan sliver of the electorate.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.