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In America, during the past few years (when I started to actually follow politics), gun control has been something that Republican politicians are almost all very strongly against, while it is supported by basically all Democratic politicians. While I personally very much support it, it seems strange for it to be a policy of the socially liberal Democrats; the socially conservative Republicans are in favor of limiting things like abortion while liberal Democrats don’t want abortion to be heavily restricted. Additionally, libertarians, who are very socially liberal, are against it.

What caused this to be a policy heavily associated with the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party? How long has this been the case? Is the Democratic Party's policy on this unusual among left-wing political parties in the world?

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    Could you explain why you find this surprising? It seems perfectly reasonable given the general positions of these parties. Why would you expect the party that is traditionally against government regulations (Republicans) to be un favor of this particular one? And why would the party that is traditionally (slightly) more in favor of regulation be against this one? – terdon Jun 13 at 17:42
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Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican party has had three main pillars:

  1. A low tax, somewhat libertarian group.
  2. A pro-military group.
  3. A moral majority, pro-life group.

The moral majority group is heavily based in rural areas where gun ownership is common.

The pro-military group includes many current and former service members who own guns.

The libertarians are historically pro-gun.

Until relatively recently, there were many pro-gun-rights, anti-gun-control Democrats. As the party has lost hold in rural areas, it has lost almost all of those (Joe Manchin is an exception).

The Democrats modernly are an urban party. In cities, guns are much less used. In fact, it is common for it to be illegal to fire a gun except in immediate self defense in most places in cities. The police are closer (so self defense is less of an issue). Fewer people in cities own guns legally.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats want to restrict things. The Republicans want to restrict lifestyle choices, like sexual behavior and drug use. The Democrats want to restrict financial decisions. In terms of guns, like in finances, Democrats are less concerned about freedom from government restriction and more concerned about freedom from violence (financially, Democrats are most concerned with freedom from being unable to finance essential needs). Freedom "froms" that concern Democrats:

  1. Financial need.
  2. Gun violence.
  3. Environmental damage.
  4. Prejudice (based on skin color, gender/sex, sexual orientation, etc.).
  5. Unfair labor practices like being fired without due cause.

Government restrictions on abortion are the odd choice out from this perspective, but feminists (defined here as women worried about prejudice against women) feel strongly that the government should not have control over their bodies. Abortion is also often a backup plan for poor families that may not be able to afford quality birth control. Richer families are more able to handle unplanned pregnancies or travel somewhere where abortion is legal.

In the United States, gun control is a modern phenomenon. At the founding, the chief worry was that a tyrannical government would take away guns. Most adult men owned guns, even in comparatively urban areas. Organized militias sometimes required able-bodied men to own guns.

In the early twentieth century, Democrats began shifting from a rural, Southern party to one with many urban members, particularly in unions. In 1968, the traditional Southern members split off and supported a separate presidential candidate. In 1972, they supported the Republican Richard Nixon. By the end of 2014, almost all Southern Democrats had been replaced with Republicans.

Some other countries around the world:

Australia

The National Firearms Agreement was organized by the conservative/right-wing Liberal party.

Japan

In Japan, gun restrictions have been passed by the conservative/right-wing Liberal Democratic Party. Of course, gun restrictions have some history in Japan, an urban country where weapon ownership was long limited to the elite samurai.

New Zealand

The left-wing Labour party is currently promoting gun control (in 2019).

United Kingdom

Gun control was passed in 1903 by the right-wing Conservative party. And in 1997 by both the Conservative party and the left-wing Labour party (control of the government shifted during the year and each party added some gun control when it was in charge).

Communism

Most communist countries implemented gun control strictly. They were of course left-wing financially but were often right-wing on issues of crime and morality.

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    In 1997 the UK Labour party was far more centrist than left-wing. – Stop Harming Monica Jun 12 at 13:34
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    Yes, but I don't think that's too relevant; what matters more is that there wasn't a pre-existing well-funded gun lobby marketing gun ownership as an identity issue. The people using guns in the UK were a few sportsmen (who lost out) and more farmers with shotguns (already subject to registration, law remained largely unchanged for them). The only gun manufacturers in the UK were Lee-Enfield and some boutique shotgun smiths. – pjc50 Jun 12 at 13:47
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    Any references to Reagan's gun control efforts as the Governor of California with out addressing the root behind much of it, the rise of an armed presence of the Black Panthers, misconstrues the context of his horrible gun policies. – Drunk Cynic Jun 12 at 17:40
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    So am I the only one whose ears started bleeding while reading the sentence, Democrats are most concerned with freedom from being unable to finance essential needs? I understand why the answer structured the sentence that way, but it's still extremely confusing to read ;) – bvoyelr Jun 13 at 12:21
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    I don't imply anything about Ronald Reagan on gun control. I just point out that the three pillars of Reaganism all happen to support gun rights at some level. They can do that even if Reagan himself disagreed. And while the NRA would like to keep the Overton window on carry rights, that's not what I see as the most important part of gun rights. Instead, I would say ability to purchase legally. – Brythan Jun 15 at 8:07
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Trying to derive policy positions from first principle doesn't really work, especially not when they're so strongly driven by identity in the present.

But the key thing in gun control is to understand freedom from. Referring to FDR's speech on WW2 on the "four freedoms":

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

The last of these is the important one. The rise of mass shootings has led to a desire for freedom from fear of being shot at, especially at school. The number of people affected by these tragedies is only increasing; there are even a few "second generation" school shooting survivors now.

Achieving this freedom can only come by a reduction in the availability and prevalence of guns.

However, the politics goes much further back, before the current mass shooting problem. Some people date it to the 1960s and the Kennedy assassination. Either way, the NRA became explicitly Republican. This included significant financial support to candidates. See this article from 1995! Surprisingly little has changed since then but the names.

Once the partisanship was entrenched, it became unshiftable.

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    Achieving this freedom can only come by a reduction in the availability and prevalence of guns., I don't disagree, but one can reason both ways, as in some countries (Switzerland), the (male) population has military-grade firearms at home to deter a foreign invasion, which is one way to implement "freedom from fear". Historically, US gun culture is related to manifest destiny, in which European immigrants were "given" a plot of land but needed a firearm to protect their property and family from the previous users (Native Americans), they would have said their gun protected them from fear. – gerrit Jun 12 at 16:28
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    "Achieving this freedom can only come by a reduction in the availability and prevalence of guns." This is a premise that gun rights supporters typically reject. Schools in particular lack any sort of meaningful response of force when an attack does occur, and the national media coverage of such tragedies immortalizes the attackers. This makes them attractive targets. Gun rights proponents would prefer to make them less attractive targets instead. To assert your position as undeniable truth is misleading. – jpmc26 Jun 13 at 12:51
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    @jpmc26 I don't feel safe near firearms of any kind in any circumstance even when it's held by friends of mine. I can feel safer in a less armed world. Even professionals make mistakes and not everyone is a professional. I really favor the British approach – jean Jun 13 at 13:41
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    @jean I know several teachers. I can't imagine any of them being able to shoot one of their students, it that was necessary to protect others. I can imagine them leaving a gun lying around where it could be easily taken by an angry student. – Ross Thompson Jun 13 at 13:50
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    @jean Your feeling of safety is not a guaranteed right. Nor should it be. Why aren't you just as afraid of large kitchen knives? Or materials that can be made into makeshift bombs (e.g., lithium batteries)? Are you afraid of the cars at your school? Are you afraid of riding in cars? Are you afraid of swimming pools? There's many more deaths by those each year than by gun violence. The world is dangerous. No law can change that. – jpmc26 Jun 13 at 13:57
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The Republican Party has a conservative ideology which is characterized (among other things) by respect for American traditions, of which private gun ownership certainly is one. Since debates on gun laws are most often about making those laws more strict, it only seems natural that a conservative party supports less strict laws, thus keeping the status quo.

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    The American tradition is strict gun control: smithsonianmag.com/history/gun-control-old-west-180968013 (see also Reagan's gun control laws while governor), which hasn't been respected since the 70's when the NRA shifted public policy debate towards an extreme interpretation of the 2nd amendment: washingtonpost.com/politics/… – BurnsBA Jun 12 at 13:48
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    @BurnsBA Some frontier towns in some Plains states and territories are not a great measure of American tradition. In any case, you're arguing past him: everybody still owned guns, they just didn't brandish them in certain towns. – gormadoc Jun 12 at 18:40
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    Oversimplified, but there's a kernel of truth here. – Hot Licks Jun 12 at 23:09
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    Actually, before the Old West, there was the US Revolutionary War, where armed citizens played a substantial role, and a role that may well have prompted the 2nd Amendment. After that, some US troops in the Civil War equipped themselves with repeating Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers, purchased with their own money. The 'strict gun control' tradition exists only if that's all you're looking for. – tj1000 Jun 13 at 1:29
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    That conservatives land in the Republican party (for lack of anywhere else to go) does not mean that the party itself is conservative. – bvoyelr Jun 13 at 12:27
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I suspect this may be reflective of the big divide in the US being urban vs rural. rural areas have more use for guns while urban areas tend to be more socially liberal for a variety of reasons. The difference between the parties reflects differences in their supporters.

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    I feel that this requires more details, maybe at least some reference. Otherwise it is just an interesting comment, not a real answer. – Alexei Jun 12 at 13:31
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    Surely properly formed gun-control laws would mean that people in rural areas who genuinely require guns would still be able to purchase them? It is, after all, not a "gun-ban" law - the idea is to restrict unnecessary, speculative and/or superfluous purchases. – Chronocidal Jun 12 at 15:29
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    @Chronocidal: Surely only properly formed gun control laws would even exist. Unfortunately, reality disagrees. The only reason a lot of gun control laws aren't outright bans is that they'd then be patently unconstitutional. Gun-control zealots would quite happily repeal the Second Amendment altogether if they could, but since they can't, have to settle for being as restrictive as they can get away with. – cHao Jun 12 at 16:06
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    @cHao And NRA zealots make ridiculous claims about how all gun-control laws are attempts to repeal the second amendment. Since there are nutjobs on both sides, can't we exclude both sets and have any remaining politicians try to draft some sane legislation? Since the Second Amendment starts with the words "A well regulated militia", aren't (appropriate) gun-control laws and regulation themselves mandated by the Second Amendment? – Chronocidal Jun 12 at 22:51
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    @Chronocidal Seeing aside the irrelevance of the first half of 2A (it takes a willful forgetting of the rules of English to think the first half restricts the second), no, we can't exclude the nutjobs on both sides and get anything done, because it doesn't even become an issue til the nutjobs get involved. – cHao Jun 13 at 2:25
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pjc50's answer is correct, but needs more explanation. Like most positions of American political parties, it has to do with historical affiliations between groups, not philosophical principles. Specifically for the issue of gun control, firearms manufacturers and distributors were drawn to the Republican party because that party was pro-business.


It wasn't always this way. This is explored in the PBS Frontline documentary "Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA":

NARRATOR: But for the NRA, the gun wasn’t always a political issue. It had once represented something for hunters and sportsmen.

(...)

NARRATOR: Then the assassinations of the ‘60s— John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King—

Sen. ROBERT F. KENNEDY (D-NY), Presidential Candidate: My thanks to all of you. And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.

NARRATOR: —and Robert F. Kennedy. Many American cities erupted into armed conflict. In response, Congress passed the first comprehensive gun control law in decades.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 had wide bipartisan support. According to ustrack.gov, House Democrats voted 157 in favor and 79 against; House Republicans voted 79 in favor and 39 against. In the Senate, 39 Democrats voted in favor and 13 against; Republicans voted 31 in favor and 4 against; and the Yea votes represented 91% of the country's population. Republicans actually voted for gun control in 1968 at higher rates than Democrats. The vast majority of those opposing gun control were in rural districts, at that time mostly held by Democrats.

Frontline continues:

WARREN CASSIDY, Former NRA Executive V.P.: NRA people said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got— we’ve got other things to worry about than teaching guys how to shoot or how to hunt, and so forth, or collect guns.” And that’s when— that was the transformative period.

NARRATOR: It formally happened in 1977 at the NRA Convention in Cincinnati. As they got down to business, there was a showdown, hunters and sportsmen versus gun rights activists.

CBS NEWS: [May 21, 1977] The National Rifle Association convention in Cincinnati went into overtime last night, a stormy all-night session. When it was over, some dissident members had taken control of the 400,000-member organization. What it means is even stricter support for the right to bear arms and against gun control.

JOHN AQUILINO: The core of NRA’s political support comes from a very conservative Republican group of people. They’re the ones who give the money. They’re the ones that pay the freight for all the political battles. And they’re very conservative.

But mainstream Republicans were still not on board. After an attempted assassination, President Reagan stayed out of gun politics. But his press secretary James Brady was severely disabled by the attack, and Brady pressed for more gun control legislation. The Brady Bill was introduced during the Bush administration, but it did not come to a vote then. It finally passed in 1993 and was signed by President Clinton.

Gun manufacturers and retailers were infuriated by the Brady Bill. They perceived it as a threat against their business. If only they could buy politicians opposed to gun control, they could stop this threat. They had the money to do it. They had control of the NRA, and could use that as their political vehicle. But which party should they back?

These were business owners, and the Republican party had a long tradition of being pro-business. Furthermore, it was cheaper to flip rural Democratic districts to Republican, than to flip suburban Republican districts to Democratic. So the decision was made to back pro-gun Republicans in the next year's election. They sent out mailers to the NRA membership...

TIM RUSSERT, Moderator, Meet the Press: [April 30, 1995] Aren’t you concerned when you say, “Nazi bucket helmets, government thugs, kicking down doors, killing, maiming people”— aren’t you inciting people? Aren’t you willing now to apologize for the tone of this letter?

WAYNE LaPIERRE: Those words are not far— in fact, they’re a pretty close description of what’s happening in the real world.

PAUL BARRETT: And in response to that, many mainstream Republicans, George H.W. Bush being the leading example, said, “This is not the NRA I’m a member of.”

NARRATOR: President Bush resigned his lifetime membership in the NRA.

But it worked. The 1994 election flipped 54 seats in the House, giving Republicans the majority for the first time in 40 years.

And it has simply polarized and escalated between the two parties since then.

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Although as others have pointed out, there really is no simple answer, one IMHO important factor is a basic difference in philosophy. Very simplistically, Republicans want individuals to take care of themselves*, while Democrats want the government to take care of everyone. So we have Democrats generally supporting tax-funded medical care along with various other social programs, and likewise wanting the state to defend the individual against crimes &c. Republicans think individuals should bear the primary responsibility for such things.

*Though unfortunatly, they tend to object when that self-reliance leads folks to deviate from what we might call "traditional family values".

  • Yes, but all of these are social constructs. And the question tries to analyse why and when that happened. E.g. Eisenhower isn't republican anymore. – Thomas Koelle Jun 13 at 13:18
  • @Thomas Koelle: I think the difference goes back at least to FDR. – jamesqf Jun 13 at 17:12

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