Patchwork Nation: The Gun Law Divide

BY Dante Chinni  January 14, 2011 at 1:15 PM EST

When Congress returns to Washington to begin work in earnest following the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Tucson, gun control advocates will likely be making the case for new measures.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D- N.Y., is expected to introduce legislation banning the type of high-capacity magazine that alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner used in Arizona.

But apart from any momentum legislation may gain in the post-Tucson moment, gun control is an extremely divisive issue in America. And in Patchwork Nation there is a clear divide between our 12 communities in those who support gun control measures and those who oppose them, according to a September poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Support for the measures largely emerges from densely-populated urban areas – the big city Industrial Metropolis counties and the wealthy, educated Monied Burbs – where large majorities say they are more concerned with controlling gun ownership than gun rights.

But in the overwhelming majority of our county types the public leans strongly toward protecting “the right of Americans to own guns.” Or at least they did lean that way last fall.

Two questions emerge going forward from the Tucson shootings: How malleable is public opinion on the topic of gun control, and what will be the significance of the differences of opinion on the issue as we move toward 2012?

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Second Amendment In Focus

The divide visible from the September Pew poll is stark. On the whole, 60 percent or more of those surveyed in the Industrial Metros and the Burbs said they think it is “more important” to “control gun ownership” than it is to “protect the rights of Americans to own guns.”

What do those places share? Both of them feature lots of people living in close proximity to each other. They are both, on the whole, wealthier than other places. They are also both places where gun-related crime plays a big role in the local news.

There are, without question, hunters who live in, say Philadelphia and the wealthy suburbs around it, but for most people guns are probably more associated with crime scenes and hold ups than weekends in the woods in camouflage. The idea of a shooting spree at a local suburban mall or of the “wrong person” getting caught in a downtown turf war carries more weight.

Standing at the other end of the spectrum are the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters and rural agricultural Tractor Country communities. In those places more than 63 percent said they were more concerned with the “right of Americans to own guns.”

The Epicenters and Tractor Country are the flip side of the places that support gun control. They are more sparsely populated and, as we note in the book “Our Patchwork Nation”, guns are much more a part of life and recreation in them.

In many of those communities, like Sioux Center, Iowa, a Tractor Country community we have been reporting on for three years, the first day of deer season is something of an unofficial holiday, with kids being excused from school to head off to the woods with dads and uncles. The Sioux County Sportsman’s Club, in nearby Orange City, lists 17 local hunting sites.

Other communities are more mixed, but still more supportive of gun rights overall. In the somewhat exurban Boom Town counties, for instance, 53 percent said they were more concerned with gun rights. In the small town Service Worker Centers, it was 56 percent. In the aging Emptying Nests, 57 percent.

Bringing Them All Together

And somewhere in all those numbers are the real challenges for gun control measures. The size and diversity of the places with the United States means people not only see the gun issue differently, they see guns themselves differently.

In some places they are seen as a danger and a threat, and in others they are seen as tools for recreation or protection. Getting people from those communities to agree on national standards is inherently difficult. Add in the fact that most Americans don’t seem to think tighter laws could have prevented the tragedy in Arizona, as Judy Woodruff noted yesterday in her blog, and any serious shifts in opinion seem unlikely.

But the difference in opinion that existed long before Tucson is significant.

The shootings in Tucson have brought gun violence back into the national dialogue, and even if Americans do not think tighter regulations could have prevented the shootings, that doesn’t mean there will be any interest in losing gun rules – particularly in the Industrial Metros and Monied Burbs.

The Industrial Metros are reliable Democratic territory, few issues have much impact in them, as we note in “Our Patchwork Nation”. But the Burbs, full of moderate swing voters, are key for both parties, and gun control clearly seems to resonate with them.

The shooting’s long term impact on the national political landscape is, of course, uncertain. But the tragic events in Tucson will be still somewhat fresh on voters’ minds as many Republican presidential contenders prepare to announce their candidacies and will likely shape some of that nearer-term landscape.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect link to the Pew survey on gun laws. The link has since been corrected.

Dante Chinni is the director of the Patchwork Nation project.