The Big Idea

Guns and Abortion

How the right keeps winning on both.

A Glock 9 mm pistol

Why is it so easy to get guns in America? Cho Seung-Hui purchased one of the pistols he used to shoot 50 of his classmates, a Glock 19, at a shop in Roanoke, Va., after showing an ID card and passing an instant background check. He appears to have gotten the other gun he used, a Walther P22 semiautomatic, legally as well. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, guns are about as difficult to come by as Mexican food in Mexico.

School shootings are a regular occurrence in the United States. Every one of them underscores the obvious point that guns should be harder to obtain. So does America’s death rate from firearm suicides, homicides, and accidents, which is double or triple that of other developed countries. But at least until this week, gun control had essentially fallen off the national agenda. Even most Democratic politicians treat the topic as poison. The gun lobby claimed credit for Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, and John Kerry believed its boasts enough to pose as a hunter in full camo. The assault weapons ban Bill Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and efforts to renew it have flat-lined. Only in big cities have politicians not quite given in on the issue, despite the trouble it makes for them nationally.

The most common explanation for this retreat is the clout of the National Rifle Association. Like AIPAC and AARP, the NRA’s acronym is a synonym for Washington power. But the NRA is an expression of the strength of gun owners, not the reason for it. And the outsized impact this constituency has is far from unique. Indeed, the gun lobby’s success in derailing handgun regulation illustrates how American conservatives continue to win on a range of social and cultural issues where they actually represent a minority position.

This point becomes clearer when you compare the politics of gun control with the politics of abortion. On both issues, the public opposes a blanket ban by margins of approximately 2-to-1. But in both cases, the public also supports significant restrictions. The Gallup organization recently found that 37 percent of those polled agreed that abortion laws should be stricter, as against 23 percent who thought they should be less strict, and 36 percent who thought they should remain the same. On guns, the pro-restriction numbers are even higher. In another recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans said gun-control laws should be made stricter, only 14 percent said they should be less so, and 35 percent said they should stay the same.

Given those numbers, it should in theory be easier for liberals to require handgun registration than for conservatives to constrain abortion. In practice, the opposite is true. Conservatives have been remarkably successful in promulgating parental-notification laws, waiting periods, and bans on specific medical procedures. Gun-control advocates have tried to borrow from the right’s playbook, promoting restrictions that sound reasonable and poll well, such as waiting periods, background checks, and bans on semiautomatic weapons with scary reputations. Yet they have accomplished little. The only meaningful federal restriction on handgun purchases, the Brady Bill, was considered a huge accomplishment when it finally passed in 1993 after a decade of lobbying. But thanks to the private-transfer or “gun show” loophole, about 40 percent of gun sales remain invisible to law enforcement, rendering the law’s mandatory background checks easily avoidable.

What explains the success of Republicans in regulating abortion, where only a slender majority of the country agrees with them, while preventing the regulation of guns, where a much larger majority disagrees? Of course, pro-gun activists have the largest possible advantage in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms (and never mind the part about “well regulated”). Roe v. Wade discovered a constitutional right to abortion in the emanations from penumbras, but it has the political disadvantage of being neither explicit nor persuasive. In ideological terms, the conservative movement remains more disciplined and better skilled than the liberal side at framing political debates. It has cast both issues in terms of absolute principle: the right to life on abortion, and to personal liberty in the case of guns. The call to conscience tends to be more compelling than the call to practicality, and the contradiction between these two positions—one libertarian, the other anti-libertarian—bothers very few people.

Republicans also have a leg up on both abortion and guns because rural America, where their positions are most popular, has disproportionate power under the Constitution. Thinly populated Western states, where guns are loved, have the same two votes in the Senate as big Northern states, where guns are more often feared. Within states, cities continue to face political disadvantages despite the constitutional requirement of equal representation. * The anti-majoritarian features of our republican system give conservatives strength beyond their numbers and insulate them from long-standing declines in both rural population and gun ownership.

Second Amendment advocates also benefit from an institutional supremacy that doesn’t extend to their pro-life allies. Quick, name the liberal counterpart to the NRA. Let me help you: It’s the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2006, it donated $90,000 to support pro-gun-control candidates. In the same time frame, pro-gun groups donated $3 million to their candidates—33 times as much. This discrepancy echoes a sociological difference. Hunting and shooting are sports, with clubs around the country that bring together people who share not just a political agenda but a consuming hobby. There are no lodges for gun-control advocates. 

The final point is about passion. Gun-owning in America is a way of life. Gun control is just a political opinion. This accounts for an enormous disparity in zeal between the two sides. There are single-issue voters on both sides of the abortion divide for whom the issue trumps everything else. But when it comes to guns, the issue is a litmus test only for those militant about the right to bear arms. A huge constituency considers this right sacred, cares about it exclusively, and needs little prompting to disgorge torrents of letters and e-mail messages to congressmen and editors. Gun controllers, by contrast, tend to be less excitable, see the issue as one of many, and struggle to motivate those inclined to agree with them.

The massacre in Blacksburg might change all that, but I doubt it.

* Correction, April 20, 2007: The original sentence implied that state governments may explicitly give greater weight to rural votes than to urban ones. In fact, this practice is forbidden by Supreme Court voting rights decisions in the 1960s. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.