UPDATE January 27, 2014: In a new national ad, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords again implies that since 90% of Americans support background checks that means that they will support the legislation that she is pushing.
“What is Congress afraid of? Nine out of 10 Americans support background checks. They make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get guns. Congress is afraid of the gun lobby. Tell Washington it’s too dangerous to wait.”
Original Post: Earlier this year Nate Silver assured people that there were solid polls showing “Overwhelming majorities of 80 to 90 percent of the public say they favor background checks.” See also here. On Monday, soon to be former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts (with Moms Demand Action) repeated the claim and make the related point that even among NRA members “74 percent support background checks for all gun sales” (this last poll number was paid for by Bloomberg). Indeed the notion that the NRA isn’t representing members of the NRA has become a common claim made by gun control organizations. But there were a couple major problems with these poll numbers: 1) People were really just being asked about whether they wanted to keep criminals from getting guns, not about a particular piece of legislation. 2) The surveys asked a vague question with no information on how the current system works.
There was a poll in April by the PEW Research Center that gets at the first issue and I think is much more accurate. It asks people whether they are happy that the Senate gun control bill was stopped in April. Apparently, both Republicans and Independents are generally happy that it was stopped by 51-to-34 and 48-to-41 margins. My guess is that Republican Senators are paying a lot more attention to what Independents and Republicans wanted than Democrats who would never have voted for the Republicans anyway. It looks to me that Republicans voted the way that their constituents wanted. So Republicans shouldn’t really care that among all voters the poll showed support of 47 to 39 percent. If you want to explain why Republican Senators voted against the measure, you should look at the results by political affiliation.
Many, such as the New York Times, paint a picture of Senators who both simultaneously opposed the will of 90 percent of their voters and at the same time quake in fear of the NRA. Here is a piece by Joe Nocera at the New York Times on April 19th:
The four Democrats — along with many Republicans — quake in fear of the National Rifle Association. In 1994, Baucus voted in favor of the assault rifle ban — and then nearly lost his re-election bid. He never again stood up to the N.R.A. Yes, his phones were undoubtedly jammed this week. Still, it seemed to me that his unanswered phone was a potent symbol. I could almost picture him cowering in his office, waiting for us to stop asking why he sold the country down the river. . . .
Note in Baucus’ case, he is retiring and yet he still voted against the so-called “universal background check” bill, so it really isn’t clear what the NRA could do to him at this point in his career.
Relatedly, people simply don’t care strongly about gun control. Gallup’s survey regularly asks people: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” Note that this included gun control issues beyond background checks and it includes people on both sides of the issue (those who think either more or less gun control is extremely important), but even so very few people put gun control as a top issue. Just take the numbers from earlier this year: January 2013 4%, February 2013 6%, March 2013 4%, September 2013 1%, October 2013 1%, November 2013 <1%, and December 2013 <1%. A January 2014 WSJ/NBC News survey makes a similar finding: gun control doesn’t enter into at least the top 13 concerns that voters have.
The second problem with these polls is that the news media has done a horrible job describing what the current rules are and what the changes would accomplish. Part of this fits in with President Obama’s and the media’s numerous false statement “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases take place without a background check” (even the Washington Post eventually noted that this state was clearly false). When Americans are given some details about the current system polls give dramatically different results. For example, when they are told that “A vast majority of guns sold at gun shows are sold by licensed dealers who are required by federal law to conduct background checks before guns are sold,” a National Shooting Sports Foundation poll had to do what other surveys refused to do and found a clear majority of Americans don’t think that additional federal laws are required. It would be nice if other surveys tried to provide some similar information.
Other surveys from this year find that few Americans actually think that neither background checks nor gun control generally would be beneficial. In April, a Rasmussen survey found: “Only 41% believe more background checks will reduce gun violence.” In December, a Reason-Rupe poll found that by a 63 to 32 percent margin Americans don’t believe that tighter gun control “would not be effective in preventing criminals from obtaining guns.”
Nor can the results of these polls or the behavior of politicians be attributed to another often advanced explanation that gun ownership groups such as the NRA are spending so much money (or here and here). Yet, Michael Bloomberg spent $12 million on gun control advertising in 2013, with gun control groups outspend gun owner groups by 7.4 to 1.
Other notes: Among the few times that pollsters ask Americans “Which party is closer to you on gun control?” we found that Republicans had double digit leads over Democrats. From The Economist/YouGov poll:
10/23-26/2010 Gun control Democrats 28% – Republicans 42% – Both the same 9% – Not sure 22%
10/2-5/2010 Gun control Democrats 27% – Republicans 42% – Both the same 9% – Not sure 22%
9/11-14/2010 Gun control Democrats 27% – Republicans 39% – Both the same 10% – Not sure 24%
8/7-10/2010 Gun control Democrats 27% – Republicans 37% – Both the same 10% – Not sure 26%
Similarly, Fox News polls find that Obama has very low approval ratings on gun control.