Those New Gun-Control Polls

by Charles C. W. Cooke

At The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie has a post about the likelihood of new gun-control measures:

In general, I’m skeptical about the prospects for new gun-control laws. The universe of people whose political activism is centered on opposing gun control is still much larger than the reverse, and few Republican lawmakers have any incentive to sign on to any kind of comprehensive law.

With that said, there is wide public support for several commonsense measures. 

new survey from the Pew Research Center, for example, shows that 85 percent of Americans support background checks for private and guns show sales, 80 percent support preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, and 67 percent support a federal database to track guns.

When it comes to public support for “background checks for private and gun show sales,” and to “preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns,” the Pew data that Bouie cites may well be accurate, and support may well be “wide.” Indeed, if Joe Biden’s commission goes anywhere at all, stronger background checks and amended mental-health provisions are the items most likely to clear Congress.

But there are a couple of glaring elements within Pew’s data, which is presented graphically in Bouie’s post. (In fairness, Bouie ignores these elements in the text, which may be because he doesn’t consider them realistic or useful.) For example: 58 percent of Americans claim to favor a “ban on semi-automatic weapons,” which is a few percent more than back a “ban on assault style weapons.” This is incoherent, first because “assault-style weapons” don’t exist — “assault weapon” is a made up term — and second because almost all weapons that are labelled “assault-style weapons” are semi-automatic. The majority of guns in the United States are semi-automatic. Either Americans do not realize that a “ban on semi-automatic weapons” would effectively ban most guns in the United States, including most handguns, or Newtown was a watershed moment and the public now supports far stricter gun control than previous polls suggest. Having closely watched the illiterate debate about guns over the past month — and despaired at the general confusion of terms — my money is on the former.

Likewise, a new Washington Post/ABC poll claims to have found that 51 percent of Americans support “a law requiring a nationwide ban on semi-automatic handguns, which automatically re-load every time the trigger is pulled.” I shall believe this when I see it. If this is true it is huge, and might well usher in the end of widespread gun ownership in the United States. More likely, however, it is a failure of respondents to connect the questions to the guns to which they refer. Words such as “assault weapon” and “semi-automatic” sound scary — gun-control proponents know this, which is why they throw them around — and they conjure up images that are far removed from reality. My suspicion is that if Americans realized that they are actually being asked about that modest handgun they have in their bedroom drawer, and not military-grade weaponry, their answers would change dramatically.

Certainly, these alleged levels of support don’t tally with Monday’s findings from Gallup:

Thirty-eight percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation’s gun laws and want them strengthened–a big jump from the 25 percent reading of a year ago, and the highest in a dozen years.

But….43 percent are either satisfied with current gun laws or think they should be loosened.

“Other recent Gallup polling shows Americans are not prepared to relinquish their Second Amendment rights, as majorities reject banning the possession of handguns by civilians, or even outlawing the manufacture or possession of certain semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles,” Gallup said.

If Americans had really turned on private ownership of handguns, one would not expect to see these attitudes toward current law. Time will tell.