There is no doubt that today was a very good day for gun owners in America. In the face of some of the greatest hostility in recent memory, the Second Amendment and its supporters prevailed in the Senate and for the time being, look safe from further infringement. However in his speech after the fact, President Obama scolded the Senators and Americans claiming that 90% of us supposedly support further gun control measures. For such a divisive topic, how could nearly unanimous support exist for these measures? Is it really true that this many Americans currently support Obama’s gun control efforts?
First, we need to establish where the data comes from. Based on what we have seen, the data may come from a couple of surveys. One of the most prominent of these studies comes from Quinnipiac University. The question this study asked the 1,772 registered voters was:
“Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?”
At first glance, this seems like a relatively innocuous question and rather unbiased in approach. However, as has been previously discussed (http://modernrifleman.net/2013/04/04/a-deeper-look-at-the-40/), a vast majority of gun purchases do undergo background checks. The poll goes further to break down the respondents by political affiliation and gives us some insight as to how the question is viewed by different groups. Unfortunately, it fails to give any details as to how many people identified with each group and leaves us only with potentially misleading percentages.
Greater questions arise when we start to look at the poll’s methodology. In the document, it is mentioned that Professor Schwartz typically performs polling in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. In essence, the poll is potentially dominated by predominantly Democratic states with a few swing states sprinkled in. Though the poll suggests that perhaps the survey was nation-wide, it does not explicitly state this fact and does single out the states mentioned previously. Naturally, we would like to have seen more transparency from Quinnipiac, rather than what appears to be the equivalent of a form letter describing the polling methodology.
The poll also asserts that a majority of Americans have supported stricter gun control dating back to 2008. In contrast, even a very recent CBS News poll suggests that prior to the Newtown tragedy, gun control support was weak. The CBS poll goes further to indicate that calls for gun control have been waning in recent months. Though both polls seem to indicate some support for stronger laws, these numbers come nowhere near the 90% statistic that gun control advocates quote.
It is also interesting to point out that so many people suggest that they would support background checks for all purchases, but significantly fewer would support more stringent gun laws. If 90% of people truly believe in “universal background checks”, why are they not answering the above questions in favor of stricter laws? This is a strong indicator of general ignorance towards current laws and is perhaps a product of people being mislead by gun control advocates who have turned the non-existent “gun show loophole” into a prominent talking point. It could also be the product of people understanding that many gun purchases already do undergo such checks and are expressing their approval for the current system and are not necessarily advocating any real changes. Both potential factors are important to consider when looking at the data.
We also have no gender breakdown for this survey. It is possible that the split was 50/50, but we cannot be for sure. As other polls have displayed, this can be important as women tend to be more supportive of gun control measures than men.
Now we need to turn to another potential issue with the way these surveys have been conducted. In a Washington Post blog entry from January, the assertion was that Americans support stronger gun control laws. In multiple graphics the Washington Post appears to demonstrate that Americans do in fact support more stringent gun laws. However once again, this presents some real problems.
The first thing to consider is that the article (and its data) is quite old at this point. Having been released in January, at the height of the emotional backlash from the Sandy Hook events, we can expect the outrage from the events to reasonably skew the data as has been shown in numerous other polls, including the aforementioned CBS poll.
Moreover, the second graphic (above) from the entry that details the levels of support for different parts of Obama’s proposal provides us with some unintentionally telling insight. First off, even shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings, support for bans on standard capacity magazines and modern rifles was rather low. Secondly, the questions being asked for each included poll are different. This is no small detail as anyone familiar with polling can tell you that the questions you ask can determine the results you can expect to record. Digging deeper into the Washington Post/ABC poll that is featured in this graphic tells us a great deal about the sorts of questions that are being asked. The question Washington Post asked was:
“Would you support or oppose a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows?”
This question is misleading in that it is so limited in scope, covering only those sales that occur at gun shows. The sort of universal background checks that are currently being pushed go well beyond gun shows would also establish the framework necessary for potentially invasive registration measures. The proposal expanded the powers of the Attorney General and in doing so, took steps that sensible gun owners and many politicians were uncomfortable with.
Simply put, the polling data can be substantially affected by the way the question is posed. A poll that asks, “do you support restricting firearm access for felons and the mentally ill” can, and has recently been interpreted as a call for more gun control. Biased questions do little good in gauging public support for any type of proposal. The same sort of issues arise when we look at the Popvox information for Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ (MAIG) proposal in that the central premise of their proposal is that criminals and other prohibited persons will no longer be able to obtain weapons. Based on the way criminals behave, most reasonable people can assume this would be untrue even if we can all agree that ideally that would be the case. Further, other gun control proposals have encountered overwhelming opposition on Popvox.
We need to be clear here. The proposal that was rejected yesterday was far more than the simple background checks that the majority seem to support. The NRA itself supports the NICS system and non-invasive ways to improve the system, including better mental health reporting. Those who have not read the bill need to do so in order to understand why legitimate objections were raised. The key takeaway from yesterday is that the Manchin-Toomey bill overreached what could have been realistic goals and failed as a result. Now today, we are being told that senators voted against background checks in general and that internet sales and gun show purchases are not subject to NICS checks. Experienced gun owners know that in large part, this is not the case.
The fact of the matter is that at no point in time have Americans overwhelmingly supported the sort of sweeping proposals that President Obama scolded the Senate for voting down on Wednesday. At best, the president had significant support for background checks, but based on polling bias the data is of questionable integrity and it is likely that many of those polled believed that they were only showing support for checks on sales at gun shows. The fact that “universal background checks” are being sold as simple phone calls to the NICS system is alarmingly incomplete when the penalties for loaning a gun to a friend/family member for legal uses and the record-keeping requirements are taken into consideration. Perhaps it could be said that 90% of Americans support some degree of gun control (like we already have), but to say that 90% desire more stringent laws is disingenuous at best, especially when there are clearly worded surveys which paint a drastically different picture. All factors considered, the only people who were truly being “willfully misleading” on Wednesday were those who were pushing for sweeping gun control and the polls they were using to justify their efforts.