Do Republicans Own Gun Control Policy?

In this post, I will explore the differences between and within state Republican and Democratic parties on gun control using 2012 state party platforms.  Most scholarly focus on party gun policy positions tends to be on congressional voting patterns or public opinion. State party platforms, however, provide unique insight into party positions. State parties use their platforms craft often detailed positions on a large range of issues, from education and economic issues to foreign policy and social-cultural issues.

Elsewhere, I have explored whether state party positions reflect issue ownership or conflict extension. When an issue is “owned” by a party, the voting public tends to perceive that party as more competent on the issue. Most often, assessments of issue ownership are restricted to valence or consensus issues. Egan (2013) argues that consensus issues can divide parties over priorities, performance and policies, but not the fundamental goal of a growing economy or improving high school graduation rates. Egan argues that “the analytical relevance of the concept of issue ownership is largely limited to understanding the politics of consensus issues” (2013:17). Generally, studies of issue ownership are studies of public opinion. An issue is owned, as Petrocik argues, based on reputation; the public has more confidence that the party prioritizes the issue and will deliver on its promises.

In this post, I will examine how gun control illustrates a pattern of issue ownership, even though it is not a valence issue. What is different in this analysis of issue ownership is that I am focusing on the sources of party issue attention, rather than what is really an outcome variable, the reputation of the parties on an issue in the eyes of the public. This look at issue ownership does not allow me to evaluate performance in implementing these policies, yet I can assess how the parties differently prioritize issues and to what degree they conflict on the policies surrounding the issue.

There are several different outcomes that are possible. First, the parties can conflict on an issue directly, which would be an example of polarization and conflict extension. Second both parties can offer similar ideological views, which is predicted by the Downs and which finds empirical support in the work of Erikson, Wright and McIver (among many studies of state politics). Third, one party may address the issue while the other party does not, which is predicted by research on European party manifestos as a form of issue ownership.

I will show that gun policy largely across states provides evidence of the third case, although in some circumstances. That is, Republicans devote more space to the issue than Democratic state parties and advocate clear ideological views, while Democratic state parties are more equivocal or silent (the first case).

First, a note about state party platforms. In the platforms, state parties expend considerable space to articulate exactly what they believe in detailed terms both in policy specifics and in terms of the moral underpinnings of their beliefs. The platforms represent the formal positions of the state organizations, whether they are put together by the state party central committee or written by activists at the precinct level.   Certainly, state platforms cannot be said to represent the single view of an entire state party. Indeed, part of the value of studying these platforms is that they are windows into not only the core values of the parties, but the conflicts and tensions that exist within and across state parties.  As a result, they are a unique source for understanding the nuances of party issue stances. The platforms can be as long as the national platforms or as short as a few resolutions. Parties, therefore, have considerable freedom to articulate their issue positions. So, they are good place to look to identify the most important policy differences between the parties.

Issue Space

All states devote relatively little space to gun policy. I  have coded platforms into 25 issue categories. Most state party platform content is devoted to economic and budget issues, which take up about 20 percent of platform sentences. Other issues, such as education and the environment take up about 10 to 15 percent, although there is more variance on the amount devoted to these issues.  Gun policy, in contrast,  is the focus of about 1.39 percent of the sentences. In other words, a typical, platform that is 100 sentence long will have about 1-3 statements about gun policy.


Republicans consistently devote more platform space (mean =2.3, SD = 1.5) to gun issues than Democrats (mean = .48, SD= .68). Of the 36 Democratic platforms I analyzed, almost half do not mention gun policy, compared to only two out of  35 Republican platforms do not mention gun policy. As can be seen in the chart below, the difference in issue space is consistent across nearly all states; only the Wyoming Democrats devote more space (as a percentage of total space) to gun policy than Wyoming Republicans.


Republicans consistently devote more platform space (mean =2.3, SD = 1.5) to gun issues than Democrats (mean = .48, SD= .68). Of the 36 Democratic platforms I analyzed, almost half do not mention gun policy, compared to only two out of  35 Republican platforms do not mention gun policy. As can be seen in the chart below, the difference in issue space is consistent across nearly all states; only the Wyoming Democrats devote more space (as a percentage of total space) to gun policy than Wyoming Republicans.


Overall, Republican platform are always more conservative than Democratic platforms on gun policy. In fact, out of 35 Republican platforms, 31 have gun policies that score as more conservative than the overall policy positions in their state platform. For example, the California Republican Party has eight sentences on gun policy, seven of which were coded as -1, one of which was coded -.5. The overall score for these eight sentences is -.91, which is more conservative than the overall platform score of -.51. This pattern is common for the GOP; most state Republican parties put forward clearly conservative positions on gun policy, but more nuanced or moderate positions on other issues.


In terms of specific policy proposals, in 2012 five Democratic platforms specially endorse background checks all nearly all five are the most liberal (CO, IA, MN, TX, WA).  Three Democratic platforms also support a ban on assault weapons (CA, NE, WA), while two others support a ban on concealed carry (NE, WI). In contrast, while two Republican platforms support background checks (CA, IL) most Republican platforms focus primarily on opposition to federal licensing. Seventeen platforms support concealed carry in some form, some form and three state parties oppose assault weapons bans (IA, NH , OK).


On Gun Policy, Two Parties Separated by a Common Language

A typical Democratic platform statement is the 2012 Delaware Democratic plank:

The concept that , by acting responsibly and with respect for differing views on the  weapons issues , we can protect our  constitutional rights and keep our  communities and our children safe.

Democratic platforms tend to equivocate more. That is, the statements tend to express support for gun control, while still acknowledging the right of gun ownership. For example, the Minnesota Democratic platform supports “Reasonable firearm policies that promote public safety and crime prevention without infringing on the rights of hunters and other sports enthusiasts.” The 2012 California Democratic Party plank supports “responsible gun ownership and reasonable gun safety and work with gun owners and sporting associations to promote gun safety education.” When Democrats support controls, they are usually modified, singling out child safely or keeping guns away from criminals.

Word Clouds of Gun Policy Planks in Democratic and Republican State Platforms



Republicans rarely demonstrate nuance in their positions. Words and phrases such as “fundamental”, “guarantee”, “immediate”, and “strict adherence” are common. For example, the Kansas Republicans “condemn frivolous lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, which are transparent attempts to deprive citizens of their rights.” The Iowa Republican platform states: “We demand full restoration of 2nd Amendment rights and call for a state law authorizing law-abiding citizens to carry firearms, open or concealed, without a permit.” The Missouri Republican Party supports the “strict enforcement of existing gun laws but not the creation of new and unnecessary gun control law” and that “there should be mandatory sentences for 49 criminals using a gun in the commission of a crime, or any other weapon or threat used to 50 debase, wound, or kill an innocent victim. We call on governments at all levels to strictly 51 enforce existing gun laws.”

There are important language differences between the parties when it comes to gun policy. As the two word clouds show, there is some overlap, and since Republican platforms devote more space to these issues, their platforms use more words and so the Republican cloud is bigger. As evidence of the Republican “issue ownership” on this issue, Democrats tend to use words more associated with Republican (“right”, “gun”, “ownership”, “keep”) while Republicans use fewer words that appear in Democratic platforms (“check”, “ban”, “safe”, “background”). This difference can be seen more in word clouds of  the top ten words used by each party in their platforms. A different way to see differences in word choice and therefore policy views is by examining the most conservative and liberal platform positions. The table below shows the top words for five most conservative and five most liberal Democratic and Republican platforms.  Some patterns stand out.  None of the top ten words for liberal Democrats were shared by the other three grouping of state parties.  In fact, conservative Democrats and more moderate (relatively) Republicans use very similar words, sharing nearly every word and the only word these parties do not have in common, “own” ranks just outside of the top  ten for both groups. These word choices are significant; Republicans emphasize individuals and rights, while Democrats consciously invoke words like weapon and gun (other words in Democratic platforms not making this list include “ammun”, “manufa”, “childproof”). Republican words not appearing in Democratic platforms include those focusing on individuals “propert”, “famli” “person” infring” and “defend”, words which focus on individual rights).

Top (stemmed) Words on Gun Policy

Liberal Democrats Moderate Democrats Moderate Republicans Conservative Republicans





2. support 2.right 2.firearm
2.check 3.firearm 3.arm
4.firearm 4.gun 4.arm 4.constitut 5.arm 4.citizen 5.bear 5.bear 6.amend
6. weapon 5. keep 7.bear 7.state
8.ban 8.citizen 7.firearm
8. feder 7.keep 9.individu
8. law   7.state 9.keep
8. purchase     9.lawabid



The table shows that moderate Democratic parties tend to use more “Republican” words compared to liberal Democratic parties. In other words, the lexicon of gun policy for state parties seems to be oriented towards gun rights rather than gun control.


While gun policy represents a clear dividing line between Democrats and Republicans in public opinion surveys, the data here indicate the Democrats are more internally divided than Republicans. The pattern here is of “issue ownership” even though this is a positional and not a valence issue. Democrats are silent or rarely explicitly oppose the dominant party on the issue. This is consistent with some measures of public opinion; a recent Pew Study found that over the last twenty years, support for gun rights has eclipsed support for gun control among the general public. Certainly, it is possible that the tragedy of Sandy Hook in December of 2012, after these platforms were issued may have ltered partisan discourse on gun policy. I am in the process of analyzing 2016 state party platforms and I will post those results later.

The pattern here is one that varies by issue. State parties also address a number of other controversial issues, including immigration, climate change, education, taxes and civil rights. On these issues, the balance of attention and ideological divisions between the parties varies, which I will explore in future posts.




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