As a million moms get set to march on behalf of gun control this weekend, it’s not clear how this issue will play in voter decisions in the fall. The conventional wisdom has held for a long time that while proponents of more restrictions on firearms outnumber opponents, it’s intensity that counts at the ballot box, and the Second Amendment crowd has had a big edge there.
For a while it looked as if the killings at Columbine High School might change the political equation. In the months after the tragedy, not only did polls find an increased number of Americans favoring more restrictions, but there were indications that the proponents of gun control were more intent than in the past. For the first time ever, national polls were finding significant numbers of respondents volunteering in open-ended questions that gun control was the top issue facing the country.
Gun control looked like a tailor-made issue that Al Gore and the Democrats could hit out of the park. In post-Columbine America, George W. Bush seemed very vulnerable, having signed a conceal-and-carry law in Texas, and having been identified by the unpopular National Rifle Association as being a potentially “friendly” president.
Yet, that’s not what the polls are showing. Most surveys have found about equal levels of confidence in the two candidates on gun control. And a recent Gallup poll even found a 43 percent to 37 percent plurality thinking Mr. Bush would do the better job on this issue. Two factors account for this unexpected result.
First and most important is that while most people want more controls, it is easy to overlook concern about gun owner rights. Yes, with regard to handguns 9 in 10 favor mandatory waiting times for background checks, 89 percent would require childproof safety locks on new weapons and 75 percent favor registration. But the public is more divided on registering rifles and other long guns, is split on laws that would ban concealed weapons, and opposes an outright prohibition on handguns.
So while most Americans want stricter laws, many Americans hold moderate or mixed views. Recent polls also find some backlash against calls for controls. A number of polls have also found majorities agreeing with the N.R.A. position that better enforcement of existing laws is more important than new laws.
Politically, voters who take a strong pro-control position overwhelmingly favor Mr. Gore on this issue, while those who hold the opposite point of view think Mr. Bush best represents them. But voters with a mixed or moderate position tend to have more confidence in Mr. Bush than in Mr. Gore, according to Pew Research Center surveys. The judgments of the “moderates” at this point probably have less to do with knowledge of what the candidates believe about specific controls and rest more on hunches about them personally.
A second component of this is gender, one of the most important prisms in this campaign, especially when it comes to guns. Men have more confidence in Mr. Bush and women more faith in Mr. Gore to represent their views.
How, and if, the issue affects voter decisions will hinge on the outcome of the campaigns for and against gun control. Can the likes of a million moms do what the N.R.A. has done for years — mold single-issue voters? Can Mr. Bush hold the middle on this issue while hanging onto the Second Amendment advocates? Can Mr. Gore effectively draw in more female supporters who favor controls without further alienating men who have less commitment to this cause?