Guns and Votes
Why are U.S. congressmen reluctant to support gun control regulations, despite the fact that most Americans are in favor of them? We argue that re-election motives can lead politicians to take a pro-gun stance against the interests of an apathetic majority of the electorate, but in line with the interests of an intense minority. We develop a model of gun control choices in which incumbent politicians are both office and policy motivated, and voters differ in the direction and intensity of their preferences. We derive conditions under which politicians support gun control early in their terms, but oppose them when they approach re-election. We test the predictions of the model by analyzing votes on gun-related legislation in the U.S. Senate, in which one third of the members are up for re-election every two years. We find that senators are more likely to vote pro gun when they are close to facing re-election, a result which holds comparing both across and within legislators. Only Democratic senators "flip flop'' on gun control, and only if the group of pro-gun voters in their constituency is of intermediate size.
We are grateful to Micael Castanheira, Ernesto dal Bo, Mirko Draca, Allan Drazen, Matthew Gentzkow, Steve Levitt, John List, Dilip Mookherjee, Jim Snyder, and Noam Yuchtman for their helpful comments, as well as participants at the 2013 Political Economy NBER Summer Institute, the Faculty Discussion Group on Political Economy at Harvard University, and seminar participants at the University of Chicago, Berkeley University, Chicago GSB, University of Maryland, Georgetown University, ECARES, HEC Montréal, CEU Budapest, and Max Planck Institute Bonn for their valuable suggestions. We are also indebted to Jorge Sanchez Bravo and Yasemin Satir for excellent research assistance. Funding from the FNRS is gratefully acknowledged. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.