Support for stricter U.S. gun laws hasn't jumped as fast or as far in recent weeks as many liberals had hoped and expected. If you're wondering why, maybe the reason is the shakiness of the public's trust in government itself.
After the horrific murders three weeks ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, gun-control advocates confidently predicted that a wave of revulsion would sweep the nation. We would, in the popular argot, "hit the reset button," beginning a fresh debate on new terms.
It hasn't happened that way. Consider a recent roundup of opinion surveys. In the USA Today-Gallup Poll taken just a week after the shooting, when one would expect the largest emotional effect, support for "more strict" gun control in the abstract was at 58 percent, compared with 43 percent about a year earlier. On specifics, 74 percent opposed a ban on private ownership of handguns, and 51 percent opposed a ban on private ownership of assault weapons. (There's more support for posting armed guards in schools than for limiting access to assault weapons.) Sure, advocates can try to twist these polls into policy preferences. In truth, although the data reflect what might prove to be temporary majorities for such measures as banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, one searches in vain for a mandate in support of policies many gun-control advocates prefer. The urgency seems to have gone out of the argument. Even the news media seem to have grown bored by the whole thing.
People will tell pollsters that the widespread availability of certain types of weapons makes the nation more dangerous rather than safer, but they don't support measures to curtail their use. If Newtown hasn't pushed the numbers much, why not? One plausible explanation is a lack of trust in the people who would be doing the regulating.
The Gallup Organization has been measuring Americans' trust in their government since 1997. Last year, only half of Americans said they generally trust the federal government to do the right thing on domestic policy -- a significant improvement over the 43 percent figure a year earlier, but nowhere near the heights of trust one saw in President Bill Clinton's second term and President George W. Bush's first.
Sad to say, the lack of trust has been well earned. Consider the recent negotiations over the "fiscal cliff." Although the last-minute deal has its defenders, it nevertheless showcases the federal government at its least competent. Reform of entitlements and the tax code is left for later. Increasing the debt limit is kicked down the road. And, as usual, the legislation was too long for members to read before they were required to vote. None of this helps to improve the image of Washington.
We are now approaching four years since the U.S. Senate enacted a budget. The last was in April 2009. And bear in mind that federal law requires an annual budget. Imagine the ire of the senators toward a private firm that treated legal requirements so casually.
Amid such ineptitude, "Trust us, we'll protect you," isn't a very persuasive case to make to the tens of millions of Americans who have guns -- often very powerful ones -- in their homes. And directing fury at gun owners for their lack of trust isn't likely to increase their faith in government.
As a general proposition, arguments born of emotion are not likely to be well thought out -- or to persuade those not already on board. Yet anger has been very much the style of the case for gun control over the past few weeks.
Thus columnist Donald Kaul, writing in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, has earned harsh but entirely understandable criticism for this bit of cruel nonsense: "I would tie Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, our esteemed Republican leaders, to the back of a Chevy pickup truck and drag them around a parking lot until they saw the light on gun control." Kaul is trying without success to be funny, and no doubt the violence of the imagery is intended as ironic. But the irony fails, probably because of the anger that the columnist himself admits.
What the polling data teach is that anger isn't working. Most people are angry at the shooter and at society. They're not particularly angry at supporters of gun rights.
Few groups this side of the now-moribund Moral Majority seem to excite as much ire and hatred among liberals as the National Rifle Association. Most Americans feel otherwise. In a Gallup poll released last week, the NRA received a 54 percent favorable rating. By comparison, as of this writing, the Real Clear Politics average of President Barack Obama's approval rating stands at 53.4 percent. For Congress, the figure is an abysmal 18 percent. In other words: The NRA is as popular as the president, and three times as popular as Congress.
The Democrats, who read polls very well, have no doubt come to see that the firearms issue offers less political advantage than they'd hoped. In a Pew Research Center poll taken two weeks ago, respondents were asked if either party "could do a better job reflecting your views about gun control." Twenty-seven percent said the Republicans could; 28 percent said the Democrats could. The same poll asked about the influence of the National Rifle Association on policy. Some 36 percent said the NRA had too much influence, and 47 percent said the group had the right amount or too little.
These numbers suggest that directing hatred and invective toward either the NRA or the gun owners it represents is not, to say the least, a winning strategy. Nor should it ever be: In a democracy, invective is not a proper form of political argument.
There is a reasoned case to be made for reducing access to certain firearms, as there is a reasoned case to be made for many a controversial policy. But we don't live in a reasonable era. We live in an era of fury and invective, of applause lines and slogans. Maybe the poll numbers on gun control will serve to remind us that until our politics are able to rise above the nonsense, trust in government will continue to fall.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama," and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln."