Explaining the Gender Gap On Gun Control

Elahe Izadi

While gun-control legislation is a politically risky vote for red-state Democrats, it’s also an issue that could hurt the GOP’s efforts to attract female voters.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 65 percent of women favor stronger gun laws, compared to 44 percent of men. That’s consistent with previous polling; a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 61 percent of women and 45 percent of men in favor stricter gun laws.

Richard Feldman, the Independent Firearms Association president and a former NRA lobbyist, said that the gender gap on gun laws is a long-standing one, and that much of it has to do with who owns guns.

“The gender gap is real, but when you look at the gun owners and the non-gun-owners, that differential is going to drop substantially,” he said.

Although gun ownership among women has increased over the previous decades, men are still three times more likely to own guns than women, according to a March Pew Center survey. And opinions on the effectiveness of gun laws vary greatly depending on whether you own a gun or if there is one in your house. According to the Pew survey, 66 percent of people who live in gun-free homes say stricter gun laws would reduce mass-shooting casualties; only 35 percent of people in gun-owning households agreed.

In some ways, it’s a chicken-or-egg question: Is it that people who are prone to buying guns are already against stricter gun laws, or that owning a gun changes people’s opinions about gun laws?

Whatever the case, polling has long shown that women favor stricter gun laws, and the emotional effect of the Newtown shooting has brought those feelings to the fore.

“There’s a post-Newtown effect that, in particular, hit women, who were more likely to say that Newtown made them want to support stronger gun laws as a result,” said Margie Omero, Purple Strategies’ managing director of research. “More women are concerned about a mass shooting in their community and the culture of violence, broadly speaking.”

The gender gap can have political ramifications for the GOP, Omero says. That can play out particularly in places like swing-state Virginia, where a 2013 gubernatorial race is competitive and winning the moderate white, suburban, female vote will be crucial to both parties' efforts.

“If Republicans want to broaden their support and reach out to groups they did less well with, groups like women and so on, they’re going to need to reach out to some of those voters,” she said. “That means supporting commonsense, stronger gun laws that enjoy a wide variety of support.”

But just as women preferred President Obama over Mitt Romney (55 percent to 44 percent), men preferred Romney over Obama (52 percent to 45 percent). So the gender gap on gun control can cut both ways, Feldman said. “Do you think Democrats consider men as a crucial vote?”

Those already in Obama’s coalition—nonwhites and college-educated white women—support stricter gun laws. In a 2012 Pew survey, 61 percent of all nonwhite adults and college-educated white women said controlling gun ownership was more important than gun rights. As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein noted, “Gun control is now overwhelmingly unpopular among the portions of the white electorate Obama is least likely to win anyway—and maintains solid majority support among the Americans most likely to actually vote for him.”

The political calculus will be very different for individual lawmakers. Take Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who were the only Democrats who voted to block Senate debate on gun-control legislation. Those red-state Democrats don’t have to worry about winning over Obama's coalition of voters, because they're not a force in these deeply conservative states.

But if pro-gun-rights Republicans in more Democratic-friendly states want to attract female voters, they'll want to think twice about the tone of the gun debate and talk in ways that appeal to women. “When you hear the tone of Wayne LaPierre and other gun lobbyists, I’m not really getting, ‘I care about kids and their safety.’ It’s not speaking to women,” Omero said.

Feldman said, “[Republicans] should be framing the debate about safety and personal protection and responsibility, and not about assault weapons.”