Cruz Registers Tea Party Embrace of Gun Rights

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Guns at McBride's Guns Inc. in Austin on Mar 26, 2013.
Guns at McBride's Guns Inc. in Austin on Mar 26, 2013.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has figured prominently in the efforts of a small group of Tea Party-aligned Republicans to mount a filibuster against the tortuously negotiated gun control legislation scheduled to make its way to the U.S. Senate floor on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to have the 60 votes necessary to open up debate on the bill, likely putting Cruz and his comrades on the losing side of a filibuster that they had hoped would be the kill shot for the gun control bill.

Extensive polling on the subject of guns in the February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll illuminates how attitudes about gun control proposals among Texas Republicans provide a foundation for Cruz’s resistance to the apparent compromise taking shape in the U.S. Senate.

The reasons for Cruz and his allies to oppose gun control legislation are many: constitutional beliefs about the scope and supremacy of the Second Amendment, policy beliefs on the efficacy of stricter gun laws in reducing violence, personal beliefs about the prominence of firearms in American history and culture, and — recent polling suggests — a practical interest in self-defense. (In the last UT/Texas Tribune Poll, 44 percent of those who reported possessing one or more firearms reported that self-defense was the primary reason for their gun ownership.) The concentration of these attitudes among a group of Republican primary voters who intensely oppose any stricter gun regulations illustrates how politics buttress the determined opposition of Tea Party banner bearers such as Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Consider Cruz’s political position on gun control measures vis-à-vis his supporters back home. In the February 2013 UT/Texas Tribune Poll, we asked a battery of questions about gun control, and while Texans are clearly conservative on new gun control measures, the Tea Party identifiers in the state are at the far right end of the spectrum when it comes to the new regulations making their way through the Senate. For example, nationally, according to a January 2013 New York Times/CBS News poll, 54 percent of Americans think that gun laws should be made more strict while 43 percent think they should be left as they are now or made less strict. In Texas, only 44 percent think that gun laws should be made more strict, while a majority (52 percent) think that they should be made less strict or left as they are now.

While these results will surprise no one with even a passing knowledge of Texas political culture, the magnitude of Tea Party opposition is striking. Among those who identify as Tea Party Republicans, 94 percent think gun laws should be made less strict or left as they are now, 42 percentage points more than Texans as a whole and 51 percentage points more than the rest of America. Nationally, 46 percent of people think that stricter gun laws would do little to reduce gun violence compared with 56 percent of Texans and 93 percent of Tea Party Republicans. Forty-four percent of Americans, 49 percent of Texans and 92 percent of Tea Party Republicans opposed a semi-automatic weapons ban. The banning of high capacity magazines is opposed by 87 percent of Tea Party Republicans compared with 45 percent of Texans and only 34 percent of Americans.

The biggest surprise comes in universal background checks, initially seen as the “sweet spot” of the national legislation, where public support appeared to fuel the compromise enabling legislation to reach the floor of the U.S. Senate. While only 17 percent of Texans oppose criminal and mental background checks, 42 percent of Tea Party members oppose these checks, compared with only 19 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.

There has been much talk lately of the peaking or even decline of the influence of the Tea Party phenomenon in both state and national politics, a proposition that deserves separate attention. But for Republican candidates, Tea Party identifiers remain an intense, mobilized constituency for Republican politicians with their eye on the next primary. Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans are made up of equal shares of likely voters, according to our October 2012 UT/Texas Tribune survey, but more Tea Party voters expressed an intense interest in politics — 71 percent to be exact — compared to only 53 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans. This means that as a group, Tea Party members pay attention to politics, and those senators seeking not to invite a primary challenge need to do all they can to fight the good fight in a public opinion environment more favorable to new gun laws than at any time in recent memory. At a minimum, they must appear to be doing so, even should the fight turn out to be at best symbolic.

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