The President's new push for gun control presents an opportunity for Republicans to start rebranding themselves and maybe even win back some of the women's vote. According to the latest polling by Pew Research, support for gun control is lower today than it was when President Obama first came into office. The number of Americans who said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights has dropped from 58 percent in April 2008 to only 49 percent today. Meanwhile, those who would rather protect the rights of gun owners has grown from 37 percent in 2008 to 46 percent today. Even in the wake of Newtown, enacting gun control is not a slam dunk.
Americans' concern for the rights of gun owners coincides with a remarkable growth in the percentage of women who own guns. In 2011, Gallup reported that the number of women who said that there was a gun in their home hit a new high of 43 percent. The percentage of women who say they personally own a gun has almost doubled: In 2005, only 13 percent of women reported owning a gun; that's grown to 23 percent now.
More Republicans than Democrats own guns, but that same 2011 Gallup survey found that the percentage of Democrats who self-reported gun ownership spiked to 40 percent, up from 30 percent just two years ago. There may be an opening for Republicans here because not every Democrat—nor every woman—necessarily supports the president's overreach on gun control.
Take the example of Laurie Adamo, a mother of two in Scarsdale, N.Y., who told the CBS affiliate there last year that she personally made the decision to buy a gun and get trained, rather than her husband. Here's how she explained the decision: "I know that we're OK and nothing will happen because I won't let it happen. I think your perspective changes a lot when you have a child and you see things happening in the world." That strikes me as a sentiment that most mothers share: nothing is going to happen to my child because I won't let it happen. I haven't seen any statistics on it, but I'd be willing to bet that many of the women who own guns are female heads of households.
Polling last year of gun owners and National Rifle Association members by Frank Luntz found that unlike the NRA leadership, wide majorities of gun owners support enacting universal background checks, and 3 out of 4 want permits only for those who have completed gun safety courses. A majority also support giving "concealed carry" permits only to applicants who have not committed any violent misdemeanors, including assaults—a position I'm sure many women agree with, as well as denying permits to those who have prior arrests for domestic violence. Luntz found that the NRA rank and file supports barring people on terror watch lists from becoming gun owners—incredibly, a position the NRA national leadership strongly opposes as well. The GOP would be smart to align its positions with these grassroots gun owners, not the NRA lobbyists in Washington.
Last month, Pew found that while a plurality of Americans thinks gun ownership does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime than it does to put people at risk. But then there's this: A majority of women believe that assault weapons make our country more dangerous by a whopping 73 percent to 15 percent. While the NRA loudly opposes any sort of assault weapons ban, Republicans could show how out of step the NRA's leadership is with its own membership, with the majority of women in general, and with law enforcement leaders who are concerned about the police being outgunned on the streets.
The GOP should continue its strong support for gun ownership—especially as a way to empower women seeking to protect their children and themselves—but the party could have a Nixon-goes-to-China moment if it backed reasonable measures to keep assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets out of the hands of known criminals and the mentally ill. Both women and police support that.
Whether Republicans like it or not, the massacre at Newtown has changed the world. Sales of guns are surging across the country, and at the same time polls show a majority of Americans are concerned about assault weapons falling into the wrong hands. There's nothing about keeping assault weapons out of the hands of criminals that is incompatible with strong support of the Second Amendment.
Republicans are facing a choice between the national office of the NRA and the law-abiding citizens— many of them women—of this country. If you ask me, that's an easy call.