For decades, the "conventional wisdom" has been that politicians dare not cross the NRA. Pundits and political strategists have warned candidates that support for even the mildest gun violence prevention proposals would bring down a hailstorm of opposition from Second Amendment absolutists, who were said to be "single issue voters." The theory was that gun rights absolutists were well organized and motivated, in contrast to supporters of gun violence prevention.
I think that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, I believe that gun violence prevention will become a "litmus test" or "wedge" issue in coming years. Here are my reasons.
First, far few people grow up in households with guns. Between the 1980s and 2010, the rate of gun ownership dropped from 49% of American households to 32%. That's a decrease of more than one-third in just one generation. That trend will continue as more Americans grow up in cities and suburbs, where gun ownership is far less common than in rural areas.
Second, most voters support reasonable gun violence prevention measures. Polls show that prohibiting assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and requiring universal background checks are supported by a large majority of even gun-owning Americans.
Third, gun owners are not "single-issue" voters. Most reasonable gun owners vote for candidates based on their overall agreement with the candidates' views. Those few who are gun rights extremists tend to be the same people who are anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-government. They're not going to vote for a Democrat regardless of the candidate's stand on gun violence prevention.
Only a minority of a shrinking minority believe that unrestricted gun ownership should be allowed. Fewer than one percent of people in Illinois (and fewer than one-half of one percent in Cook County) applied for concealed carry permits in the first year they were available. But that small minority has forced the rest of us to post "No Guns" signs on our homes and offices if we don't want them endangering our families and co-workers.
We're already seeing signs that a candidate's willingness to take on the NRA is an asset, not a liability. Robin Kelly won her special election to Congress in part because she took a forthright stand in favor of reasonable gun violence prevention measures, while her opponents had voted with the NRA.
State Senator Julie Morrison has introduced a bill to allow Illinois municipalities to adopt ordinances prohibiting assault weapons sales. She did so at the request of Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering, who is running for Congress. Congratulations to Sen. Morrison and Mayor Rotering for having the courage to take on the NRA. I believe the large majority of their constituents approve.
This change will not happen everywhere at the same pace. Supporting gun violence prevention will be more of an asset in a liberal suburb than in a rural area. But as more politicians take on the NRA and win (and as others equivocate and are punished by the voters), "conventional wisdom" will change. Very soon, candidates will be called upon by voters to take a firm and progressive stand on gun issues or risk losing their support.
The loud voices of gun-rights extremists make it seem as though they have the majority of Americans on their side. To the contrary, they represent a smaller and smaller percentage of households in America and in Illinois.
The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has been asking this question every two years since 1973: “Do you happen to have in your home (or garage) any guns or revolvers?” The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 32 percent in 2010, according to the survey data analyzed by The New York Times.
The rate of gun ownership in Illinois is even lower: 20.2 percent, according to a 2001 study reported in the Washington Post. Since the percentage of gun ownership has continued to decline since 2001, it’s fair to assume that more than 80% of Illinois households do not own any guns. And even most gun owners support reasonable gun violence prevention measures like universal background checks, prohibiting assault weapons, and limiting the size of magazine clips.
The November 2014 ballot in Cook County contained an advisory referendum on requiring background checks for firearm sales and prohibiting assault weapon sales. It passed with 84% of votes cast in the suburbs (556,074 to 106,659 votes) and 90% in the City of Chicago (536,655 to 61,639) .
So remember: we have most of the people on our side. The gun rights extremists do not, no matter how many times and how loudly they say they do.