Support for gun control measures is often considered politically risky territory for politicians. But after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some have suggested that it might not be so difficult for politicians to support new gun restrictions this time around, and that it might actually be politically beneficial for Democrats. The results of a new HuffPost/YouGov poll support the view that candidates will see little harm from supporting three of the major gun proposals supported by President Obama. In fact, the findings show that a Democrat might face political harm for failing to support the measures.
Between Feb. 21-23, The Huffington Post and its polling partner YouGov interviewed a representative sample of 2,000 Americans, 1,000 of whom were randomly assigned to see each of two sets of questions. Every respondent first answered a "generic ballot" question asking which party's candidate he or she would vote for in the district where he or she lives if an election were held today.
In each case, the next three questions asked the respondent to imagine an election in which one candidate supported and one opposed each of three gun proposals: Universal background checks for gun purchases, a high-capacity magazines ban and an assault weapons ban. One set of respondents saw questions in which only the Democrat supported each proposal, and for the other set of respondents it was the Republican who supported each proposal.
Note that the overall percentage saying they'd support each generic candidate (before being given the hypotheticals in which each candidate took a different position on gun control) is slightly different between the two sets of respondents because of random variation between the two samples.
The results show that being the only candidate to support background checks would be politically advantageous for a candidate of either party. Either candidate gained supporters by being the only candidate to support background checks (by 9 percentage points for a Democrat and 8 percentage points for a Republican). A Democratic candidate also saw a dramatic 14 percentage-point loss in supporters for not supporting background checks, while a Republican candidate saw a smaller 3 percentage-point loss.
For a high-capacity magazines ban or assault weapons ban, there was little net change from initial support if it was only the Democrat who supported them. The Democrat gained 4 or 5 percentage points of support, respectively, but the Republican also gained about 2 percentage points of support, leading to only a small gain in the Democrat's initial 12 percentage-point lead.
But if the hypothetical Democrat failed to support those proposals and his opponent did, the Democrat saw a dramatic loss of support, of 9 or 8 percentage points, respectively, for a high-capacity magazines ban or an assault weapons ban. The Republican who did support the proposals also gained 4 percentage points of support in both cases, leading to an evenly matched race when the Democrat initially held an 11 percentage point lead.
In the case of each gun proposal, regardless of which candidate supported them, respondents who initially said they were undecided eventually favored the hypothetical candidate who favored the gun control proposal. This implies that for voters on the fence, support for the gun proposals may be a factor in a candidate's favor, though this movement could largely reflect initial undecideds who, if pressed to lean towards one candidate or the other, would have said they supported that candidate anyway.
While one might expect regional differences in this pattern, and in particular that support for gun laws might be more politically harmful outside of the Northeast in areas where reported household gun ownership is higher, there was no region in which respondents were less likely to support the candidate who backed the gun measures than the generic candidate of the same party.
It's important to note that this experiment may overstate the political impact of support for gun laws. Most voters will probably not consider this issue in isolation, while the survey questions isolate support for the proposals as the only salient knowledge about a candidate other than party identification. And there's little indication that gun control will be the most salient issue for most Americans. In a January Pew Research Center survey, "strengthening gun laws" ranked far down a list of public priorities for the president and Congress this year.
But the results do show that, far from being a political liability, support for Obama's gun measures seems to be a point in favor of candidates across the country.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Feb. 21-23 among 2,000 U.S. adults, 1,000 of whom were randomly assigned to see each set of questions. The poll used a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
"I wish to God she had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids," Gohmert said of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/louie-gohmert-guns_n_2311379.html"><em>Fox News Sunday</em></a>. He argued that shooters often choose schools because they know people will be unarmed.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R)
"If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school," he <a href="http://www.wtop.com/610/3162096/Gov-Is-it-time-to-arm-school-officials">told WTOP's "Ask the Governor" show</a> Tuesday, warning that Washington may respond to such a policy with a "knee-jerk reaction."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) & State Sen. Frank Niceley (R)
Gov. Haslam says he will consider a Tennessee plan to secretly arm and train some teachers, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/12/tennessee-armed-teachers.php">TPM reports</a>. The legislation will be introduced by State Sen. Frank Niceley (R) next month. "Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]," Niceley told TPM. "These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have."
Oklahoma State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) & State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R)
State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) <a href="http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=336&articleid=20121217_336_0_OKLAHO168827">told the Tulsa World</a> he plans to file legislation that would bring guns into schools, calling their absence "irresponsible." “It is incredibly irresponsible to leave our schools undefended – to allow mad men to kill dozens of innocents when we have a very simple solution available to us to prevent it," he said. "I’ve been considering this proposal for a long time. In light of the savagery on display in Connecticut, I believe it’s an idea whose time has come." Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) told the Tulsa World that teachers should carry concealed weapons at school events. "Allowing teachers and administrators with concealed-carry permits the ability to have weapons at school events would provide both a measure of security for students and a deterrent against attackers," he said.
Florida State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R)
Baxley, who once sponsored Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, <a href="http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2012/12/17/florida-legislator-allow-guns-in-schools/">told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune </a>that keeping guns out of schools makes them a target for attacks. “We need to be more realistic at looking at this policy," he said. "In our zealousness to protect people from harm we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target. A helpless target is exactly what a deranged person is looking for where they cannot be stopped.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
At a Tea Party event Monday night, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/rick-perry-guns-in-schools_n_2322185.html">Perry praised a Texas school system that allows some staff to carry concealed weapons to work</a> and encouraged local school districts to make their own policies.
Minnesota State Rep. Tony Cornish (R)
Cornish <a href="http://www.kdlt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22736&Itemid=57">plans to introduce legislation that would allow teachers to arm themselves</a>, according to the AP.
Oregon State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R)
In an email <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/oregon-state-rep-dennis-richardson-teacher-guns-stopped-connecticut-shooting_n_2317444.html?ir=Education">obtained by Gawker</a> and excerpted below, Richardson tells three superintendents that he could have saved lives had he been armed and in Sandy Hook on Friday: <blockquote>If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide. ... [O]ur children's safety depends on having a number of well-trained school employees on every campus who are prepared to defend our children and save their lives?</blockquote>
Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett
"And I'm not so sure -- and I'm sure I'll get mail for this -- I'm not so sure I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," Bennett, who served as education secretary under Ronald Reagan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/bill-bennett-education-secretary-connecticut-shooting_n_2311774.html">told <em>Meet the Press</em> Sunday</a>. "The principal lunged at this guy. The school psychologist lunged at the guy. It has to be someone who's trained, responsible. But, my god, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think you ought to."