When Trust Matters: The Case of Gun Control


Declining trust in government is often cited as the cause of declining support for policies that require ideological sacrifices. Yet pivotal to the effect of trust is the broader political context, which can vary over time. In a context of deep partisan divisions, for individuals who do not trust the government, even small ideological costs can signal the beginning of a process that leads to much larger ideological costs down the line—a process akin to a “slippery slope.” We demonstrate the conditional relationship between partisan divides, governmental trust, and support for policy through empirical tests that focus on the case of gun control. We first show that the effect of trust in government on conservatives’ gun control attitudes increases as polarization over the issue grows. We then use a continuum of gun control policies to demonstrate that the effect of trust on policy support can follow a slippery slope structure during polarized points.

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  2. 2.

    When we consider shifts in trust during changes in administration, we look at the 2008–2009 ANES panel study. Fifty-eight percent of respondents do not change their answer to the trust question from the first wave (February 2008, when Republican George W. Bush is president) to the last wave (July 2009, when Democrat Barack Obama is president). Only about 6% of respondents change their answer more than 1 place on the 5-point trust scale. The partisan difference in mean trust grows from .11 (on a 1–5 scale) in 2008 to .35 in 2009. Republicans are more trusting under Bush while Democrats are more trusting under Obama. Hence, there is some relationship between trust and the occupant of the White House, but trust is not just a measure of presidential support. We include controls for individual-level presidential approval and congressional approval as is standard practice in studies on trust.

  3. 3.

    Rudolph and Evans (2005) for example, rely on measures that ask people whether they generally support more or less spending for “Maintaining a strong military defense”, “Protecting the environment and natural resources”, etc.

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    It is possible that trust in government instead works by increasing support for individual policies in isolation—that trust increases support for policy A without any consideration of policy B. We would then expect those with low trust in government to be less supportive of any policy that differs from their ideal point compared to those with high trust in government. Conversely, if trust does indeed function by alleviating concerns of the slippery slope, it should only increase policy support for moderate policies that could be the first step toward more extreme and unwanted policies (Fig. 1, Case 2).

  5. 5.

    Hetherington and Rudolph (2015) argue that polarization can also generally erode trust because polarization leads people to believe that divides at the elite level will lead to poor government performance. This argument would lead to the same slippery slope conclusion as the one proposed here. Polarization can lead to a decline in trust and can lead a person to believe that a party’s ultimate goal is a more extreme policy than the one they have proposed. In turn, this combination of low trust and perceived goals of extremity are likely to leave a person unlikely to want to sacrifice even for a moderate policy.

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    Lacombe’s (2019) focus is on communication to NRA membership, which suggests that these NRA efforts may be especially powerful for strong conservatives who may receive messaging directly from NRA.

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    An important question is whether the differentiation on gun control that has taken place within the public is sorting or polarization. There is reason to believe that it is sorting. Joslyn et al. (2017) document a process by which gun-owners became consistently more likely to vote Republican. Similarly, Levendusky (2010) suggests that polarization among elites leads the public to be more consistent across issues—a signal of sorting. Fiorina (2016) classifies the process as sorting and Miller (2019) argues that sorting more clearly explains patterns in emerging public divides on gun control. A confounding factor is that sorting can produce the appearance of increasing polarization (Fiorina 2016). That being said, our argument rests less on the process by which partisan divisions have occurred, than in the outcome of these divisions: that people are able to identify each party’s preferences on gun control.

  9. 9.

    We note the possibility that slippery slope reasoning is functioning in two ways: a priori (worry about the slippery slope leads to policy dislike) or post-hoc (there is an immediate dislike of the policy that leads to a slippery slope rationalization). Although it is possible that for some people the process is post-hoc, slippery slope reasoning is generally accessible enough to people that a priori considerations are likely. This is especially true in policy areas—such as gun control—where the slippery slope outcomes are all categorically similar, facilitating easier slippery slope reasoning (Corner et al. 2011).

  10. 10.

    The data is publicly available at https://electionstudies.org/data-center/ and https://wc.wustl.edu/taps-data-archive. The code for replicating the analysis is available at the Political Behavior dataverse: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/MHLM6J.

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    The American Panel Survey is conducted by The Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. Online surveys are conducted monthly by GfK/Knowledge Networks.

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    The lowest percentage of respondents calling for weaker gun laws was in 2004 at 3.3%. The highest percentage was in 2016, but, even then, it was only 6.5%.

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    The ANES variable guide notes that to be coded as “Never” a respondent had to volunteer this response option on their own.

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    Distributions for different wordings of the trust variable are available in Online Appendix C.

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    There are arguments to suggest that ideology is no longer a set of policy values, but rather an identity (e.g. Kinder and Kalmoe 2017). On the other hand, however, there is recent research to suggest that people do have ideological beliefs that can be stronger than their partisan pre-dispositions (Orr and Huber 2019).

  16. 16.

    In this analysis, we do not include a gun owner measure because it is not available in all years. Models including a control for gun ownership when available are included in Online Appendix E.

  17. 17.

    The effect in 2012 is statistically significant only in a one-tailed test.

  18. 18.

    There are a number of reasons why this pattern emerges starting 2008. Despite gun control being a relatively consistent part of the Republican agenda, the issue may have nationalized (Garlick 2017). Also, 2008 surveys are conducted at a time when voters anticipate a shift from a Republican to a Democratic presidency. Finally, increasing partisan antipathy sets a context for greater divides. Although determining which factors increase partisan divides is important, empirically adjudicating between these explanations is beyond the goals of this particular manuscript.

  19. 19.

    The year 2000 is coded 1, 2004 is coded 2, 2008 is coded 3, 2012 is coded 4, and 2016 is coded 5.

  20. 20.

    We should note that while there are party differences in explicit trust in government, which we are using here, there are smaller party differences in implicit trust in government (Intawan and Nicholson 2018). This is possible because explicit trust brings to mind specific government actions while implicit trust captures support of the system of government.

  21. 21.

    We do not include a measure of racial resentment as these questions were not asked by TAPS.

  22. 22.

    The goal is that items are ordered such that if a respondent supports a strong restriction on guns then the same respondent ought to support lesser restrictions on guns. If a respondent supports three out of five policies, then the respondent should support the three least restrictive policies not the three most restrictive policies.

  23. 23.

    We also validate this order using Invariant Item Ordering (IIO) analysis which yields the same results (Ligtvoet et al. 2010).


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Ryan, J.B., Andrews, T.M., Goodwin, T. et al. When Trust Matters: The Case of Gun Control. Polit Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09633-2

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  • Trust in government
  • Gun control
  • Public opinion
  • Polarization