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Opinion | Want tougher gun laws? Here’s how to sway Michigan Legislature

As a faculty member at Michigan State University, I can report that our community is still reeling from the events of last week. I am sure that I am joined by many in the MSU community in feeling encouraged that gun control advocates plan to make another push for gun reforms in the coming year.

Daniel Bergan is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and James Madison College at Michigan State University. His research and teaching concerns how communication can influence public policy.

In her State of the State address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer mentioned commonsense policies such as universal background checks, safe storage laws, and what are known as “red-flag laws” preventing a person who is a threat from possessing a gun. A recent poll conducted by EPIC-MRA in Michigan found that majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans support many of these commonsense reforms.

But gun control supporters have been burned before, shocked when even modest gun control efforts fail in the wake of a tragedy. What are the potential barriers to these commonsense gun reforms, and is there anything supporters can do to increase the likelihood that they succeed this time?

My own research concerns how policymakers respond to communications from voters, activists and researchers, based on randomized controlled experiments involving samples of state and local policymakers. I teach courses at MSU about “How Communication Shapes Public Policy” in which we read and discuss recent rigorous research that could be relevant to future campaigns to enact stricter gun control in Michigan. 

This research suggests three potential barriers to commonsense gun control, and three recommendations for gun control activists.

Don’t assume that policymakers accurately perceive support for gun control

Many political scientists have documented a tendency of policymakers to have biased perceptions of public opinion. This research involves comparing policymaker perceptions of public opinion to actual polling data. On the issue of gun reform, for policymakers who oppose gun control measures, these perceptions can be way off. Columbia University political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and colleagues surveyed congressional staffers, comparing their perceptions of support for mandatory background checks to actual support. The vast majority of staffers — 91 percent — underestimated public support for this measure.

To overcome biases in perceptions of public opinion, advocates of gun control cannot assume that policymakers share perceptions of public support for commonsense gun control measures and need to leverage evidence that the public — including substantial majorities of Republican voters — back their position.

Know that citizen contacts matter in policymaking

Contacting your elected official can influence policymaker behavior. 

This is not just a hope that representative democracy “works” — it’s based on evidence from randomized controlled trials I have conducted during actual advocacy campaigns. 

Working with the American Cancer Society in New Hampshire on its  campaign to pass a smoke-free workplace bill, for example, I randomly assigned which policymakers would be targets of an email campaign in which constituents would be encouraged to contact their legislator. These were real constituents encouraged to email their legislator about real legislation. The emails had a strong effect on critical votes on the measure. 

Part of the reason that contacts influence legislative voting is that policymakers often make judgments about public opinion not only from polls, but also from who they hear from in their town halls, in their offices, and who makes campaign contributions. 

This makes sense, as policymakers are concerned not only with majority opinion, but also the intensity of that opinion. However, the strategy of relying on contacts to form judgments of public opinion may result in biased perceptions of public opinion if policymakers are more likely to hear from some groups rather than others — one explanation for the bias in policymaker perceptions of support for gun control I mentioned above.

Traditionally, gun rights activists have exerted outsize power because they have historically been more likely to contact their elected officials. However, this has been shifting in recent years, as passionate advocates such as the Parkland survivors have demonstrated an intense support for gun control measures in protests, in mainstream media and on social media.

Supporters of gun control should encourage people who intensely care about the issue -— including many faculty, staff and students at Michigan State who are represented by policymakers throughout the state — to contact their legislator. These contacts are vivid demonstrations of support for and intensity of feelings about gun reform — and they can influence policy.

Be well-versed in the evidence and anticipate counterarguments

Politicians with the loudest voices often do not give us a sense of openness to reasoned debate. But whatever you may think about the quality of discourse in politics today, there is evidence that policymakers are responsive to strong arguments, including evidence from high-quality studies and expert consensus on the issues. 

Nathan Lee, a public policy scholar at the Rochester Institute for Technology, using an experiment embedded in a survey of a nationally representative sample of state and local policymakers, found that policymakers’ positions on three different issues — drug needle exchanges, GMO bans, and rent-control — were influenced when they were informed of expert consensus on each issue. 

Marshaling support for the effectiveness of gun control measures — whether in the form of expert consensus or other reasoned arguments and evidence — can bolster their position. There is much evidence to draw from, as public health and other researchers have conducted high-quality studies in recent years, and many groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety, have compiled evidence about gun violence.

The recent history of gun control in the United States does not offer gun control supporters many bright spots. But there are some. Just last year, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a bill including measures affecting the purchase of firearms, was approved by Congress. 

The environment for commonsense gun control — in the form of public support, a willing population of potential activists, and evidence in favor of commonsense gun laws — suggests that the time is right for changes in Michigan. 

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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