Don't Be Surprised if Gun Owners Don't Comply With Gun Control Laws

Getting a law passed is not the same thing as getting people to obey.


Media outlets love reporting the results of polling on hot-button policy issues, but they rarely tell you if the people supporting proposed legislation (especially when it's restrictive) are the same people who would be affected by it. That matters in several important ways, not least of which is that getting a law passed is not the same thing as getting people to obey. Nowhere does that matter more than in the heated debate over gun laws.

"Fifty-seven percent of registered voters in the March 24-26 survey said there should be more laws regulating guns in the country," The Hill reported earlier this year of the results of a Hill-HarrisX poll. That the story might be a little more complicated is hinted at later in the article where the numbers are broken down along partisan lines to reveal that 79 percent of Democrats support tighter gun laws, but only 36 percent of Republicans agree.

Why does the partisan divide on gun policy matter so much? Because gun ownership has traditionally been divided just as starkly along partisan lines, "with Republican and Republican-leaning independents more than twice as likely as Democrats and those who lean Democratic to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%)," according to 2017 polling by Pew Research. That may indicate an ideological difference, or it may be evidence that familiarity with firearms encourages a more relaxed attitude towards their legal status, or both. Whatever the reason for the deep disagreement, enforcing "tighter gun laws" would require the cooperation of the people who actually possess them and oppose such policy changes.

Recently, though, the partisan divide on gun ownership seems to be shifting. More people from the left side of the political spectrum and members of Democrat-leaning constituencies have been acquiring them as a means for self-defense. They've lined up to make purchases at gun stores as faith in police and institutions erodes and society fractures. But even as their partisan identity becomes less predictable, gun owners and non-owners continue to disagree on policy.

"Non-owners are 31 percentage points more likely than gun owners to say they favor creating a federal database to track all gun sales (77% vs. 46%), and there are similar sized gaps in opinion over banning high-capacity magazines and banning assault-style weapons," Pew Research reported earlier this month. "Majorities of gun owners say they favor allowing concealed carry in more places and allowing teachers to carry guns in K-12 schools, but only about a third of non-owners support these policies," Pew added.

Majorities of gun owners and non-owners do agree on two restrictive measures: Preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns and making private gun sales subject to background checks. That's unfortunate on the first count, since threatening the civil liberties of those with mental health issues is likely to deter them from seeking help. On the second point, requiring background checks for transfers of firearms between private parties is unenforceable when the government has no idea as to who owns what, and few states have registration requirements. Researchers investigating the effect of comprehensive background check laws in Colorado, Delaware, and Washington found an increase in such checks only in Delaware, according to a study published in 2018 in Injury Prevention. "One plausible explanation for our findings is low compliance in our study states," the researchers wrote.

But trying to compel compliance by belatedly imposing registration requirements is also a losing bet. Gun policy is a divisive issue and people know that some politicians want to outlaw and even confiscate what is currently legal; they don't seem inclined to make that goal easy to achieve. When Connecticut required owners of so-called "assault weapons" (really, semi-automatic rifles with a military appearance) to register their property with the state, it achieved all of 15 percent compliance; compliance in New York with a similar rule topped out at 5 percent.

That doesn't bode well for proposals to track gun sales, restrict magazine capacity, or ban "assault weapons." The people who would be affected by such laws overwhelmingly oppose them, and they've repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to defy rules that they don't like. Moreover, disagreement over restrictive gun laws appears to be widening.

"Although Democratic opinion is little changed since 2017, GOP support for an assault-style weapons ban has dropped substantially, from 54% in 2017 and 50% in 2019 to 37% today," Pew Research noted in April of this year. "Similarly, Republican support for a federal gun sale database is 13 percentage points lower than it was in 2017. There have been more modest Republican shifts away from support for ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and background checks for private and gun show sales."

Gallup finds a similar hardening in attitudes, with the gap between Republicans and Democrats over gun policy widening from an average of 22 points to 47 points, mostly as a result of the GOP's growing opposition to gun control measures.

The partisan associations of gun control proposals almost certainly sound the death knell for their prospects. The United States is a politically polarized country, in which relations between factions are defined by animosity. About 55 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats say the other party is "not just worse for politics—they are downright evil," Louisiana State University political scientist Nathan Kalmoe reported in 2019 of relations between the major political factions. It's unreasonable to expect that anybody would abide by restrictions they deeply oppose and that they associate with their enemies. 

In an additional reality check for advocates of restrictions, the growth in gun ownership among Democrats and some of their traditional constituencies amid loss of faith in government to keep the peace and treat people with respect makes it more likely that support for tighter gun laws will decline in their ranks than that Republicans will change their attitudes.

A majority of Americans may currently favor more restrictive laws regarding firearms, but that majority looks likely to shrink in the years to come, making policy changes less likely as the years go by. That's just as well, since passage of such laws would leave the powers-that-be looking thoroughly ineffective given that the people who would actually be touched by them have demonstrated their unwillingness to submit to such policies.