The dynamic of the Democratic presidential primary contest helps answer a question that is often asked – with great frustration – by proponents of sensible restrictions on gun ownership. That is, why is it so hard to get Congress and various state legislatures to pass laws that make it much less likely that people who should not own guns can continue to buy them, given that majority of the people favor such laws? Why does majority sentiment not govern here?

A large part of this answer is that what influences legislators is not just the numbers on each side, but the degree of intensity with which people hold their position. The fact appears to be that those opposed to regulation of gun ownership care much more deeply about the issue than those who support it.

What this means is that the former are much likelier to put this on the short list of things that lead them to communicate their views to the elected representatives and that influence how they will vote. To the extent that legislators are taking electoral factors into account, what they try to measure is not public opinion in general, but which of the range of opinions people have are going to count when they decide how to vote. (This does not mean that votes on this or any other issue are driven solely by their electoral impact. It is a description of how that impact is measured on any given subject.)

The problem gun control advocates face is essentially that the intensity of political feeling on the part on gun owners – by a large margin – outweighs that of those who support restrictions. And that in turn means that most of those representatives for whom electoral consequences are a consideration are pushed in the anti-gun regulation direction.

Consider what would happen to a hypothetical Republican presidential candidate who strongly supported the conservative position on all issues except gun control. This is hypothetical because there isn’t one. And there isn’t one because no matter how strongly a Republican candidate wanted to outlaw all abortions, denied that human activity contributes to climate change, supported tax cuts for the wealthy and was committed to repeal health care and financial reform, deviating from the conservative line on this one issue would result in his losing any chance of significant support.

Contrast this with the Democratic race. Here there is no need for a hypothetical. Bernie Sanders’ strong support from the most liberal segment of the Democratic primary electorate does not seem to be significantly diminished by his having opposed the most important gun control measure ever adopted by Congress, the Brady Bill, nor by his having voted for legislation most strongly opposed by gun control supporters: giving immunity from lawsuits to gun manufacturers. To emphasize the central point, conservatives are much more insistent that the candidates they back oppose the regulation of guns than liberals are that they support it.

I am surer that this is true than I am of my ability to explain why it is. But there are two factors that seem to me at least part of the answer.

One is immediacy. We know that people are more likely to be motivated by a direct threat that they know exists than the possibility that they may be affected. All those who own one gun or many guns know that they do. People fear gun violence in general, but they do not feel individually menaced. The fear of losing the guns you own, or of not being able to buy new ones, is personal and specific; the fear that some unknown innocent people will be killed is generalized and impersonal.

Second, the sadly increased dislike and distrust of government has become a serious disturbing influence on our politics. For example, see how the Republican races for president and speaker of the House strengthen the anti side’s intensity.

If you sincerely believe the nonsense spewed by Ben Carson, such as that armed Jewish civilians in 1938 would have had more success in stopping Adolf Hitler than the combined armies of Britain and France two years later, and that a good supply of rapid-firing semi-automatic rifles would empower American patriots to defeat the Army, Navy and Air Force should a dictatorial president order them to attack, then resisting gun control is a matter of the survival of freedom.

Those who believe this bring to the legislative process a fervor that is hard to match by those who see it as a policy choice. On this issue, not being paranoid, obsessive or prone to gross exaggeration works to the disadvantage of gun control advocates.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

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