Support for gun control at a record high, but Trump’s base could stand in way

Support for gun control at a record high, but Trump’s base could stand in way
Only 41 percent of those who approve of Trump's job performance favor stricter gun control, compared to 90 percent of those who disapprove. 

A new CNN poll finds that 70 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws.

That’s the highest since just before a federal assault weapons ban was signed into law in 1994, and it indicates that there’s real momentum behind the current movement to get Congress to pass stricter gun laws in the aftermath of the massacre in Parkland, Florida.

But a deeper look into that top line number also reveals a potential obstacle to gun control legislation passing: President Donald Trump’s base.

In the latest CNN poll, only 41 percent of those who approve of Trump’s job performance favor stricter gun control. Among those who disapprove of Trump’s job performance, 90 percent are in favor. That’s a 49 percentage point gap.

Now let’s compare that to the gap that existed before the assault weapons ban was passed in 1994. In a December 1993 CNN poll in which an identical 70 percent of Americans as today wanted stricter gun control, 81 percent of the people who approved of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s job performance favored stricter gun control as did 56 percent of those who disapproved of his job performance — only a 25 percentage point gap.

As you can see, the gap between President Trump’s supporters and opponents on gun control is nearly double that of the gap that existed when Congress passed the assault weapons ban. The lower Republican support this time around is key because Republicans are now in control of Congress and the executive branch, whereas Democrats held both in 1994. Democrats lost control of both the House and the Senate, by the way, in the 1994 midterm election – a loss some Democrats believe was because of the assault weapons ban.

The assault weapons ban passed the House by two votes in 1994. Only 22 percent of Republican voted yes, despite even Clinton opponents in polling supporting stricter gun control. The lack of Republican legislator support in 1994, even with Republican voters behind it, isn’t too surprising because, as I’ve noted before, Republican opposition in Congress to gun control measures tends to be stronger than certain polling suggests it should be.

Now gun control advocates could try to pass different legislation than they did in 1994. They could try to ban those under the age of 21 from purchasing a gun. That idea has been floated by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott. And indeed, 71 percent of Americans voiced approval for such a proposal in the CNN poll, including 57 percent of Trump approvers.

But the assault weapons ban actually polled better in CNN surveys than that overall and especially among Republicans before it barely passed. A December 1993 CNN survey found that 77 percent of all Americans were in favor of an assault weapons ban. This included 80 percent of those who approved of Clinton’s job performance and 73 percent of those who disapproved of his job performance.

The poll seemed to be so good for gun control advocates that Republican ex-presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan (along with Democrat Jimmy Carter) cited it in a letter to the House urging them to pass the assault weapons ban. Of course the House did, but by just two votes and with minimal Republican support.

Given that Trump’s base is less in favor of gun control, it’s plausible, if not likely, that even less than the 22 percent of Republican legislators who voted for gun control in 1994 would do so today. If less than a majority of Republicans support whatever gun control bills are presented to the House, it’s not clear that House Speaker Paul Ryan would even bring the bill to the floor.

Past isn’t always prologue, however. A push by Trump, for instance, could go a long way in getting gun control past a Republican controlled Congress in 2018. Still, there’s going to be a lot of pressure from gun rights’ activists and groups such as the NRA, as there was in 1994, that is going to keep a lot of Republicans from voting for measures that seem to have have widespread support in the polling.

The fact that the Trump’s base is less in favor of gun control than the Republican base was in 1994 only lessens the possibility that Republicans will vote for it.