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Influence of pro-firearms group in state legislatures depends on citizens' demand for guns, study finds

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

LAWRENCE — Before and after his election in 2008, Barack Obama attempted to assuage fears from gun owners that he was planning a massive rollback of gun rights. However, his election spurred a nationwide surge in gun sales, and many state legislatures subsequently passed laws deregulating firearms.

The National Rifle Association's campaign and election spending were more influential in those states where gun sales surged after Obama's win, according to a new study led by a University of Kansas researcher.

"The NRA, which portrayed candidate Obama as uniquely hostile to the Second Amendment, helped create a policy climate in some states that made its subsequent spending more effective in promoting deregulation," said Gary Reich, professor of political science, who led a recent study on types of gun legislation enacted at state legislatures from 2009-2013.

Reich's study with co-author Jay Barth, a distinguished professor of politics at Hendrix College, appeared recently in the Social Science Quarterly in a special journal issue edited by fellow KU professors Mark Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel.

The research is important, Reich said, especially in recent years as state legislatures have become highly active in passing laws that concern firearms, while there's been virtually no policy activity in the Congress. While some states passed new restrictions on the sale and use of firearms between 2009-2013, more focused on deregulating the purchase and use of firearms.

"While there have been no new congressional regulations in the past eight or so years, state legislatures have passed hundreds of laws concerning firearms and ammunition over the same period," Reich said.

States legislatures in more conservative or red-leaning states were far more likely to pass laws deregulating firearms, including Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and Kansas. The states that passed the most new laws regulating firearms were California and Illinois, blue states with more liberal-leaning legislatures.

The researchers also found that NRA political spending was more influential in states where gun sales were also going up after Obama's 2008 election.

"From a scholarly perspective, this research tells us that the influence of pro-firearms groups at the state level rises with citizen demand for guns," Reich said.

In states where citizen demand surged, especially after Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012, the NRA's campaign and election spending were more effective in promoting firearms deregulation.

"From a practical perspective, these results suggest that the NRA influences state legislation but that its influence depends on a state climate in which gun owners are particularly fearful of impending restrictions on firearms," Reich said.

The study provides implications for groups on both sides of the gun debate.

"This research suggests both how important state legislatures are and the importance of attempting to manage the 'policy climate' at the state level," Reich said. "NRA spending was more influential where it could take advantage of a climate in which gun sales were surging. For advocates of gun control legislation at the state level, there is one upside: the legislative influence of NRA spending appears limited to states where the demand for guns is rising."

Gun control advocates might take from this research the need to figure out ways to shape citizen attitudes and expectations if they want their own efforts to result in legislative successes, he said.

Photo: The Kansas Capitol, Topeka.