There’s a political dynamic that virtually guarantees Congress will remain locked in a contentious stalemate over gun violence like the weekend’s mass shooting in Texas and the risk of climate change embodied in the ferocious Hurricane Dorian menacing the Southeast United States.
Both issues highlight the effective veto over legislation that the Senate provides to a group of inland states – many of them smaller, preponderantly white and heavily rural – with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry and a strong gun culture.
These states – primarily across the South, the Plains and the Mountain West – provide Republicans enough Senate seats to sustain a filibuster blocking action on guns or climate change, despite polls showing that a clear national majority now supports a federal response to both.
Even if Democrats in 2020 hold the House, retake the White House and regain a Senate majority, this regional dynamic virtually guarantees Republicans could still block any legislation that offers an ambitious response to either challenge.
That’s why a growing number of Democratic observers think if the party regains unified control of government in 2020, climate and gun control will likely be the two issues that create the most pressure for eliminating the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance legislation in the Senate.
On both issues, a stark regional divide with cultural and economic implications now separates the parties.
Carbon emissions and gun ownership
Republicans hold a strong majority of Senate seats from states where the highest share of the population owns guns. They control even more of the Senate seats from the states most tightly tied to the fossil fuel economy, as measured by the share of carbon emitted in each state per dollar of economic output, according to federal figures.
A preponderant majority of the states at the top of both of those lists also voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. The states with fewer gun owners and lower carbon emissions per dollar of economic activity mostly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and largely send Democrats to the Senate.
To a large extent the rankings of the states on gun ownership and carbon emissions overlap. So do listings of the states on their exposure to other measures of social and economic change, like the share of the workforce in information-age digital jobs or the percentage of immigrants in the population.
As I’ve written before, this means Republicans now rely primarily on the states and voters least touched by – and most skeptical of – the demographic, social and economic changes remaking America in the 21st century, while Democrats have grown more reliant on the places and voters most welcoming of those changes.
That core divide between the parties has created a dynamic in which most Republicans in Congress feel comfortable ignoring what polls show is a clear national majority for action on guns and a growing consensus for a federal response to climate change – which will be the subject of a CNN town hall with 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday night.
Consider guns. Polls have consistently shown about 90% of Americans support requiring universal background checks on gun sales, including those at gun shows or across the internet. That figure includes nearly 90% of Republicans and gun owners.
A ban on assault weapons remains more controversial, but amid the relentless pulse of mass shootings over the past few years, about three-fifths of Americans are now expressing support for such a prohibition.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week even found that four-fifths of Americans support a requirement that all gun owners obtain licenses and nearly half support a mandatory buyback of all assault weapons now in circulation – two ideas considered at the far frontier of gun control policy that some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are promoting.
2018 election changed the House
For years, a geographic mismatch in the House prevented this national sentiment from translating into policy. Many House Republicans held suburban seats in major metropolitan areas where support for gun control has grown in recent years, but still voted with their party and the National Rifle Association to oppose it. Last November, though, gun control advocates beat 40 Republican incumbents with high ratings from the NRA.
That created a clear urban-suburban majority for action on guns in the House: Earlier this year the House passed a universal background check bill with all but two voting Democrats supporting the measure. That stood in stark contrast to the 1990s, when the Democrats still held a large number of rural and blue-collar districts and 69 House Democrats voted against the Brady bill establishing the background check system for purchases at gun stores.
Now the House is weighing legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and, more gingerly, considering whether to push to pass a ban on assault weapons as well. Any of those votes would be close, but the modern metropolitan-based Democratic Party is in a far stronger position to muster a majority for gun control today than at any point in its history, since it relies far less than in the past on rural, Southern and blue collar districts.
But the geographic dynamics in the Senate virtually guarantee failure for all of these measures. That’s because states with high levels of gun ownership have elected more than enough Republicans to sustain a filibuster against any significant gun control measure. And even though polls show that most gun owners support ideas such as the universal background check and gun licensing (though not the assault ban), in those states elected officials have made clear they worry most about the response of the NRA and other segments of organized gun owners hostile to restrictions.
The tilt of states with high levels of gun ownership toward the GOP is dramatic. One academic study in 2015 that calculated the level of gun ownership in each state found in 19 states, 35% or more of the population owns firearms. Republicans now hold 27 of the 38 Senate seats from those states, and Trump won 15 of them. (The principal blue exceptions in the high-gun-owning states are Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota and, unexpectedly, Hawaii.)
In another 10 states, the study found, between 30% and 35% of the population owns guns. Republicans hold 17 of their 20 Senate seats and Trump won nine of them. (Colorado was the only state in this grouping that backed Clinton.)
In the remaining 21 states, less than 30% of the population owns guns, the study found. Democrats hold 33 of their 42 Senate seats and just six of those states voted for Trump. (These exceptions comprised the closely fought swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, as well as GOP-leaning North Carolina and Ohio, and reliably Republican Missouri and Nebraska.)
The 21 states with the lowest gun ownership have more than twice the population of the 19 states with the highest levels. The low-gun states even have 30 million more residents than all 29 states where gun ownership exceeds 30%.
But the 44 GOP senators from the highest gun-owning states have more than enough votes to indefinitely sustain a filibuster against any expansive gun control measure, regardless of national public opinion on the issue.