Last week, another mass shooting – this time in Annapolis, Maryland – captured national attention and renewed calls for stricter gun control policies. Even before last week’s tragedy, demands for gun control legislation have shaped the public discourse and political landscape ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections. Recently, Michael Bloomberg, Former New York City Mayor and founder of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, pledged $80 million dollars to help Democratic candidates win control of the U.S. House. Bloomberg has indicated that funds from his super-PAC, Independence USA, will go to pro-gun control candidates running in suburban districts where President Trump is unpopular with voters. And, earlier this month students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, creators of the March For Our Lives movement, began their Road to Change national tour to visit communities and register young adults to vote. These efforts, along with Moms Demand Action, who recently reposted all candidates and elected officials NRA grades since 2009 after the NRA deleted the data from its website, are squarely focused on keeping the issue of gun control front and center on voters’ minds and energizing turnout to elect candidates who support gun safety laws.
Those candidates navigating this electoral terrain should be aware of more than the organized activism on both sides of the gun debate; the gender gap in public opinion on gun policy, which has existed historically, persists in 2018. And, as women vote in higher numbers than men in both presidential and midterm elections, gender differences in support for gun control measures holds important implications for the parties and their candidates come November.
Already 2018 is shaping up to be a difficult year for Republicans seeking election as more than 40 Republican House members have announced their retirements. Republicans presently hold legislative majorities in both houses of Congress but are widely expected to lose seats in November when the President’s party typically suffers electoral losses at the midterm. Democrats need to flip about two dozen seats to gain a legislative majority in House and only two seats to gain control of the Senate. While the economy and national security typically rank highest on voters’ lists of concerns, a recent poll of registered voters conducted by Morning Consult and Politico makes clear there are important and often significant differences in attitudes about options for gun control measures among and between Democratic, Republican, and Independent men and women voters.
To be sure, party affiliation often tempers gender based differences between men and women voters, women partisans were less likely than the men with whom they share a party affiliation to trust the Republican Party to address gun policy issues, more likely to identify the passage of gun control legislation as a top legislative priority, and more likely to favor specific gun control measures. Taken together, men and women voters, even within the same party, often hold different views on the salience of gun control as a legislative priority and differ in their support (or opposition) to specific measures to restrict gun ownership.
First, when asked which party voters trust more to handle gun policy, women Democrats, Republicans, and Independents were significantly less likely than the men in their party to trust the Republican Party. Only 26 percent of Independent women (and 37 percent of Independent men) said they trusted the Republican Party more. Not surprisingly, a much higher percentage of Republican women, 74 percent, trusted their party more on guns but that percentage was significantly lower than that of Republican men, 81 percent of whom trusted their party more on gun policy. It is important to note that women partisans were less certain than the men about which party they trusted more to address gun policy. Indeed, over 40 percent of Independent women (and 31 percent of Independent men) said they didn’t know which party to trust more to act on gun policy, which provides both parties an opportunity to convince women voters they are the party better suited to handle gun policy.
Next, when compared to the men who share their party affiliation, Democratic women and Independent women are significantly more likely than the men to identify the passage of gun control regulations as a top legislative priority. More than seventy percent of Democratic women and 64 percent of Democratic men identified gun control legislation as a top priority. And, while the overall percentages were much lower, Independent women were more likely than the men to identify gun control legislation as a top priority, at 36 and 31 percent, respectively. In other words, voters, particularly women, are already primed to be supportive of candidates who support gun control.
Finally, women partisans were much more likely than men to strongly support specific measures that would restrict gun ownership, including legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, require background checks on all gun sales, ban assault-style weapons, prevent firearm sales to individuals reported as dangerous to law enforcement by a mental health provider, require a three day mandatory waiting period for taking home a purchased gun, and, prevent firearm sales to those convicted of a violent misdemeanor. Even Republican women, who on average support restrictive gun control measures at a much lower rate than women Democrats or Independents, are nonetheless much more supportive of these restrictions than Republican men. And, women Independents, a group of voters often courted by both parties, are significantly more likely than the men to support policies to limit gun ownership.
If the political context has shifted such that voters are more willing to back restrictive gun policies, women partisans are particularly supportive of these measures. And, if gun control activists prevail in their efforts to mobilize voters come November, the incoming Congress may well include new members specifically elected to pass gun control legislation demanded by the public, particularly women.
Rosalyn Cooperman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.