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Rot at the root

The American Political System Is Designed to Thwart Gun Control

Built-in dysfunction is the only reason the vast majority of Americans cannot exert their will to limit the everyday carnage of mass shootings.

The lawn outside the US Capitol is covered with pairs of empty shoes to memorialize the children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images
The lawn outside the U.S. Capitol is covered with pairs of empty shoes to memorialize the children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting.

If you write about American politics, you spend a fair amount of time writing about why popular things can’t get done. Sometimes the reasons are pretty clear. Why hasn’t Congress legalized marijuana when about two-thirds of the electorate support it? Because there’s a massive age gap on support, for one, and Congress tends to skew older than most Americans who don’t still use Reefer Madness as a guiding policy text. Why can’t Medicare negotiate lower drug prices despite broad support from voters? It might have something to do with lobbying by (and campaign donations from) pharmaceutical companies.

What about guns? There are few things more popular in public opinion surveys than universal background checks for gun purchases. Between 80 to 90 percent of Americans regularly tell pollsters that they would support a federal law to implement them. That is roughly as high as Americans’ stated support for representative democracy itself. And yet Congress appears no closer to passing such a measure—or any other meaningful gun-related legislation—anytime soon.

There are some bipartisan negotiations taking place on Capitol Hill this month after the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas. Whether they will yield meaningful legislation remains to be seen. It’s hard not to be skeptical after the past decade of gun politics, when public outrage grew after each mass shooting only to dissipate steadily in the face of an obstinate Congress. Gun-control proponents tend to blame gun-lobby organizations such as the National Rifle Association and their ability to exert their political will on Republican lawmakers through money and influence peddling for this state of affairs. The reality is slightly more grim.

Support and opposition for gun-control measures is not spread evenly throughout the United States. In a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center, about 48 percent of Americans said they grew up in a household where guns were present. That included only 37 percent of Americans who grew up in the suburbs and 39 percent of those who grew up in an urban area. In a small town, by comparison, 52 percent of Americans said they had grown up with a gun in the house. That number jumped to 72 percent for those who lived in a rural area.

That same survey found a divide on cultural perceptions when it comes to gun rights. Pew asked respondents whether certain basic rights—speech, religion, the vote, and so on—were essential to their own sense of freedom. There wasn’t much variation between urban gun owners and rural gun owners for most of those rights. But there was a vast one when it came to the right to bear arms: 59 percent of urban gun owners said it was inextricable from their own vision of freedom, while 82 percent of rural gun owners felt the same way.

It may seem fairly obvious to note that gun rights enjoy greater support in rural communities than urban ones. But that also has an underappreciated influence on Congress’s ability to pass gun legislation. Pew, which I’ll cite again here for methodological consistency, found in a separate 2018 survey that only about 14 percent of Americans live in rural counties. (The Census Bureau typically estimates that the number is closer to one in five Americans.) And yet those Americans, along with their neighbors in semirural suburban communities, play an outsize role in American electoral politics.

The classic example of rural overrepresentation is the Senate, where legislative power is apportioned equally among the states. A 2020 FiveThirtyEight analysis found that 25 percent of the overall U.S. electorate lives in urban cores and big cities and 25 percent live in rural areas. (The remaining 50 percent are found in America’s suburbs, exurbs, and small towns and cities in this analysis.) By clustering in a few big cities, however, urban Americans lose out on relative influence over senators. In the average state, FiveThirtyEight found, 34 percent of Americans live in rural areas while only 14 percent live in urban cores. The Senate’s critics frequently note that Wyoming’s 580,000 residents have the same number of seats as California’s 39.35 million residents. But the rural bias in the Senate goes beyond diminishing the influence of a few large states and affects a much wider swath of races.

Since the Electoral College also allocates electoral votes by state, a similar rural bias affects the outcome of presidential elections. Much was written after the 2016 election about the growing political gulf between urban and rural Americans—and the spectrum of semirural, semi-urban Americans in between them—when Donald Trump won 74 more electoral votes on election night even though three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton. In a strange historical coincidence, Joe Biden was also able to win 74 more electoral votes than Trump in 2020—but only because he won by roughly four million more votes than Clinton received.

In theory, the House should be much better at avoiding this rural skew since it allocates political power by population, with each seat representing roughly 750,000 Americans. But the rise of extreme partisan gerrymandering has warped the House’s composition in favor of rural communities. While gerrymandering is as old as the republic itself, Republicans used their victories in the 2010 midterm elections to draw nearly unbeatable maps for themselves in state legislative races in states like North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. From there, they also drew themselves into highly favorable congressional seats in 2010 and in 2020.

A common gerrymandering tactic is to “crack” and “pack” urban voters into certain districts. By splitting up a large city into multiple districts that include large numbers of rural voters, a deft enough state legislature can drain that city of effective political representation at the national level. If the raw numbers simply don’t make this feasible, then they can “pack” the urban voters into one district, creating one extremely favorable seat for one party and multiple seats that favor the other party around it. Since Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-sorting into big cities and small towns, respectively, this job is easier than ever.

One disturbing side effect of gerrymandering is that it effectively eliminates competitive elections. By one estimate, only about 30 to 35 House seats will be up for grabs by either party in the upcoming midterms. The rest, for demographic reasons, are either safe Republican seats or safe Democratic seats. In those races, the primary election is effectively the decisive one for determining who represents that district in Congress. And primary races tend to favor more partisan and more ideological candidates. If it feels like Congress has gotten a lot weirder and more extreme over the past few decades, that’s because it has—and in no small part because smaller numbers of people have greater influence over the final outcome of each House race.

All of this results in a system where rural voices are much louder and much more consistently heard in the halls of American political power. This warps our political landscape in countless ways, as myself and countless others have written over the years. But perhaps nowhere is it more plainly obvious than on gun-related legislation, where one side of the issue enjoys outsize influence in the American political system. If the average voter feels like their voice on this issue isn’t being heard by the nation’s elected officials, there’s a very good reason for that: It isn’t, it can’t, and it won’t for a grim foreseeable future.