Why the Gay Marriage Bandwagon Is Leaving Gun Control in the Dust

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Support for same-sex marriage has become a mainstream political position at head-spinning speed, but that is far from true when it comes to gun control. The diverging trajectory is in a sense bewildering. There are no bandwagons for new gun safety laws, no senators rushing to the cause on a near daily basis. There’s only a slog against long odds.

Polls so far this year on same-sex marriage suggest that slightly more than half of Americans favor it. There are higher levels of support – in some cases much higher – for many gun control provisions under discussion. So why all the friction and angst over guns, but not gay marriage?

Though the intimidating electoral clout of the National Rifle Association is a factor, the deeper question is, why is the NRA pressure working? Why are some politicians so wary of proposals that have such widespread support and that would, if applied to other products and behavior, seem unremarkable? Why are gay advocates having so much success while the parents of murdered children, and even a former congresswoman shot in the head, are having to fight so hard for what seems like common sense to so many?

Demographics offers one answer. Acceptance of gay marriage in the political world is being driven in part by polling that shows overwhelming support for it among young people. By contrast, at least two polls this spring show there is no corresponding generation gap on guns.

People aged 18 to 34 are slightly more supportive of universal background checks than older people and a bit less supportive of limits on the size of ammunition magazines, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. Those aged 18 to 39 are more likely to oppose a ban on assault weapons, a Washington Post/ABC poll found. However, both polls found the younger groups back the general idea of new restrictions on guns and most specific proposals at about the same level as the rest of the country.

The relative power of the lobbies on guns and gay marriage is another factor. The NRA is wealthy and widely feared. Christian conservatives are influential, but they are underfinanced and their peak impact arguably is in Republican primary contests in states like Iowa and South Carolina. In the gay marriage fight in particular, they have been unable to muster convincing evidence for their central argument that same-sex marriage will damage traditional marriage. The Constitution also does not provide any wind at their back. If anything, its equal protection clause helps backers of gay marriage, as does the “full faith and credit” clause requiring that the states recognize and honor each other’s laws.

The Second Amendment establishing the right to bear arms, not to mention the mythology that’s grown up around it, is a tougher challenge for gun-control advocates. There is no constitutional ban on regulating guns, as conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained in a seminal 2008 opinion. But the ruling also upheld the right of individuals to own guns and struck down Washington, D.C.’s ban on handguns, so it is remembered as a great victory not for gun regulation but for for gun rights. And subtleties aside, there is simply no stronger – or shorter – rallying cry for the NRA and its allies than the second half of the Second Amendment itself.

There’s some punditry suggesting that Obama’s statement of support for gay marriage nearly a year ago may have helped move public opinion in its favor, by providing some political cover, at least for fellow Democrats. But his impact seems marginal at best, and he is probably not going to do much better nudging Congress on guns. Still, the administration is doing what it can with the bully pulpit, and could help clear up the mistaken impression among some that strong laws such as universal background checks are already on the books. Obama, Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden are slated to hold gun-related events throughout the week, starting with an Obama speech Monday in Hartford, Conn.

Finally, there is the matter of who you know. Twenty-five years ago, only about 20 percent of Americans were telling pollsters they had a gay relative, friend or co-worker. But in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in December, 65 percent said they personally knew or worked with someone who is gay or lesbian. Visibility -- coming out to friends and family -- has been a pillar of gay strategy, and has helped shift issues like marriage and military service from the fraught ideological arena to a more mundane reality.

The personal is the political, there’s no disputing that. Just look at who is leading the push for new gun laws: Gabby Giffords, Virginia Tech students, Newtown and Aurora parents, and on and on. But as of now, only about 20 percent of Americans say they personally know a victim of gun violence. Will that number climb to 65 percent before it becomes urgently fashionable to support tighter gun laws? Surely the bandwagon will begin rolling on Capitol Hill, however slowly, before it comes to that.