Taking the political temperature—that is, figuring out the opinions—of 325 million Americans can be complicated. We’ve disagreed with each other on many major issues, such as slavery and the power of the federal government, from the very beginnings of our country. In addition, we seem to be increasingly divided and argumentative. Nevertheless, there are at least two trends on which a majority of the population tends to agree. One of these is controlling access to guns. The other is providing a way for Dreamers—young people who came to the country as children and stayed without documentation—to become citizens. Here is what the latest opinion polls show.
In terms of access to weapons, about two-thirds of registered voters support stricter gun laws, according to CNN, CBS News, and Politico. Only about one-quarter of them oppose making it harder to buy guns. For example:
- Almost 90 percent of people who support such laws want buyers to have to pass a background check before they can purchase a gun.
- More than 80 percent want to bar violent criminals from buying guns.
- More than 75 percent want to raise the age limit for purchase to twenty-one; ban bump stocks, which allow for rapid firing of arms; and enforce a three-day waiting period between purchase and delivery.
Most Americans also believe that the seven hundred thousand Dreamers who want to remain in the United States legally should be able to do so, and eventually become citizens. The well-respected Pew Research Center found, for example that nearly three-quarters of the population are in favor of granting legal resident status to these young people who grew up in America and consider it their home.
If there is widespread support among registered voters for both gun control and Dreamers, why haven’t our elected members of Congress passed laws to take action on these issues? The reason, in part, is related to our Constitution.
As we explain in Chapter 2 of Fault Lines in the Constitution, every state, regardless of the size of its population, is represented by two senators in the US Senate. So, California’s thirty-nine million residents have the same voice in Congress’s upper house as Vermont, with 625,000 people. At the state level, California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country while Vermont has some of the loosest. These state laws reflect the views of the majority of their citizens. At the national level, though, each state has equal weight in the debate.
Overall, the Pew poll found, almost two-thirds of the people who live in rural areas—that is, states with low populations, such as Vermont—want to protect the rights of gun owners. Only about one-third of city-dwellers, like most Californians, do so. On the other hand, more than three-fifths of urbanites want gun control while only a third of rural residents do. But, again, rural states with low populations count as much in the Senate as urban states with lots of people.
Senators are elected to represent the views of the people in their states. So, as far as the Senate is concerned, it doesn’t matter that most Americans want to limit access to firearms.
The Senate is a factor for Dreamers, also. As we explain in Chapter 4 of Fault Lines, each house of Congress has the right to make rules for how it proceeds—for instance, when to send bills to committees and when to vote on them. Senators have the right to filibuster legislation—that is, talk on and on to prevent a bill from coming up for a vote. Both Republicans and Democrats have used this ability to keep laws they don’t like from passing.
The only way to stop a filibuster and force a vote is for sixty senators—a supermajority—to agree to end discussion. In 2010, a majority of the House of Representatives and a majority of the Senate supported the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would give Dreamers a way to become citizens eventually. However, the bill was filibustered, and only fifty-five senators voted to cut off debate. As a result, the act failed.
Although we generally believe that we have a representative government—and we often do have one—we do not always have a Congress that follows the wishes of the citizenry. There are many reasons this is the case. The Constitution is one of them.