One consequence of the success of the National Rifle Association’s expansive gun-rights agenda — and its lobbying power in Congress — is that groups favoring more gun control have pared down their ambitions in recent years.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for instance, no longer talks about banning handguns. Advocates have moved away from the term “gun control” in favor of more specific language like “gun violence” and “gun safety.” Democratic leaders in Congress have grown timid about proposing significant new restrictions on gun ownership.
In that context it’s a bit of a jolt to read an op-ed published Tuesday by retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens titled “Repeal the Second Amendment.” Stevens is something of an expert on the issue, having considered the proper scope of the Second Amendment in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller.
In his op-ed, Stevens praises the work of the March for Our Lives organizers and urges the group to “seek more effective and more lasting reform” via a “repeal of the Second Amendment.” He calls the Second Amendment a “relic of the 18th century,” concerned more with the balance of power between the states and the federal government than with individual gun rights.
But public-opinion polling shows that it would take a lot of persuading to bring the public around to that view. In February, for instance, the Economist and YouGov asked Americans whether they supported a repeal of the Second Amendment. Twenty-one percent said they favored such a proposal, compared with 60 percent in opposition.
The poll does, however, show surprisingly robust support for Second Amendment repeal (39 percent) among Democrats (by contrast, 8 percent of Republicans would support a full repeal). Black Americans (30 percent) and Northeasterners (28 percent) also showed relatively high levels of support.
One caveat is that other polls have shown that many Americans do not know what the Second Amendment is. In 1999, for instance, a Hearst Newspapers poll found that 59 percent of respondents said they did not know the purpose of the Second Amendment. But national conversations on gun rights since then have probably shrunk that number, and the Economist/YouGov poll discusses the Second Amendment in the context of guns.
Beyond that, the poll showed that a plurality of Americans do not see the Second Amendment as something set in stone. Forty-six percent said they favored modifying the Second Amendment to allow for stricter regulations, compared with 39 percent who were opposed. More than three-quarters of Democrats said they supported modifying the Second Amendment, as did more than one-quarter of Republicans.
Those numbers are surprising, given that virtually no political leaders in the country are publicly advocating for a repeal or modification of the Second Amendment. Democrat Hillary Clinton made gun control a focal point of her presidential bid but spoke of the need to “balance legitimate Second Amendment-rights concerns with preventive measures and control measures.” In 2016, President Barack Obama felt compelled to publicly state that “I believe in the Second Amendment” as he announced a set of extremely limited executive actions on guns.
Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has for years been a leading proponent of gun control in the Senate, wrote in 2012, “let me be clear: If an individual wants to purchase a weapon for hunting or self-defense, I support that right.”
But the polling above suggests that a significant chunk of the Democratic electorate would be willing to support a much more restrictive gun-policy agenda than the party currently supports. The coming of age of the “mass shooting generation” may increase that divide.