In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, there will be renewed calls for tighter gun control in the US. A ban on assault weapons, longer waiting periods, and mental health checks will be high on the agenda – but this will not be enough to prevent future tragedies. In GRI’s view, President Trump will remain against stronger restrictions, unless there is pressure from his base.
Americans are grieving the worst mass shooting in their country’s history. As the shock of this terrible event settles in, people will be looking for answers. Yet in many cases, the motivations and circumstances surrounding such shootings are highly specific to the individual committing the crime – especially if mental health issues are involved. This makes it hard to generalise enough to create a coherent strategy that would detect and prevent similar incidents in future.
Instead, the research shows that the most effective way of preventing gun deaths is through regulation. Japan, with probably the world’s harshest regulations, also has the lowest rate of gun homicides by far. Given the scale of the latest massacre, will Americans be ready to re-examine what is seen by many as a fundamental right, the right to bear arms?
The large Republican Congressional majority will be the main obstacle to stricter regulation. After 20 children were killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, public opinion was strongly in favour of more thorough background checks, but Republicans in the Senate still voted down relevant legislation in 2013. The Daily Beast’s ongoing monitoring of Congress members’ positions on gun control suggests that only 5 Republican representatives support gun reform, while 262 oppose it.
Taking the initiative to make a change would thus have to rest with President Trump, if he was so inclined. Over the years, Trump has flip-flopped on gun control. In 2012, he seemed to support Obama’s call for stricter controls following Sandy Hook:
Some of Trump’s appointees have had similar views – the short-lived press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci, for instance:
On the other hand, reacting to the Paris attacks of 2015, Trump almost seemed to gloat about the fact that gun control ostensibly hadn’t worked:
And he has also made it clear that he is working in consultation with the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful lobby group that often gets involved in defining the regulatory agenda:
So where does Trump actually stand? A closer look at his statements during the presidential campaign actually shows remarkable consistency. His official position has been in support of the 2nd Amendment: gun violence is inevitable, mental health is more relevant than gun control, gun ownership improves safety, and taking guns away puts the good guys at risk. Trump knows that he is on thin ice with the Republican party establishment, so he won’t be going against the party consensus on this issue – with one important caveat.
All about that base
President Trump clearly believes that his popular support matters. He stays close to his base, putting on big rallies, making populist speeches, and speaking to them directly via Twitter. And the average Trump voter, unsurprisingly, is not a fan of gun control. In fact, quite the opposite. Surveys in 2016 showed a massive divide between Trump and Clinton voters on the question of banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips, with only 34% of Trump supporters in favour, against 74% of Clinton’s. Even starker is the gap between Republican and Democrat voters on whether it is more important to protect gun rights than control ownership: in 2016, 79% of Democrats said yes, but only 9% of Republicans. This is a striking historic low. In 2000, the percentage of Republicans agreeing was forty-six.
If Trump’s base was telling him to move on gun control, the prospects for stronger measures would improve. On balance, given the above statistics, Trump voters’ opinions are unlikely to shift enough to make a difference. The regulation of assault rifles could be an exception, in view of the apparent use of an automatic weapon by the Vegas shooter. But the bulk of the measures we can expect to see will very likely emerge from the points on which Trump and his base already agree: background checks for private gun sales (supported by 75% of Trump voters), and preventing people with mental illness from buying guns (82% support). Overall, reforms are once again unlikely to be sufficient to prevent more mass shootings from taking place in America.