Views Might Be Changing Toward Gun Laws Not Actually Up for Debate. So What?

10/26/2011 02:49 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011
  • Margie Omero Democratic pollster, co-host of The Pollsters podcast

Gallup released tracking today of some of the gun questions it's been asking since the 1990s, and in one case, since 1959. The results got picked up by Politico, with the headline "Don't take away guns." Sure! There is not currently a national effort (or to my knowledge, a serious state effort) to "take away" guns. Problem solved! Right?

Well, not exactly. By tracking opinions toward a handgun ban, and by looking at only a few broad questions, news and polling outlets are missing a clear and important pattern: There is widespread support for a variety of gun laws.

Two of Gallup's standard tracking questions on guns reflect the gun debate of a different time. One is "Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?" In 1959, a majority said there should be. Now, after decades have passed without any new movement on a handgun ban, a clear majority say there should not be such a law. Voters' opinions on this likely reflect the political debate, as much as the political debate reflects public opinion.

A second question shows a similar, but less dramatic pattern. It asks "Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles?" A slight majority (53 percent) are now opposed to such a law, mirroring, perhaps, the lack of a major public debate on the topic.

The third Gallup question is more broad, and so shows the least amount of change in the last few years. The language: "Do you feel the laws covering the sale of guns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are" allows respondents to reflect on the current gun law climate. In my firm's work this year for Mayors Against Illegal Guns (done with a Republican partner American Viewpoint), we've asked this question too, and found similar results to Gallup. About as many say they want "more strict" laws as want laws "kept the same." Hardly any want less strict laws. This presentation we did for MAIG (page 6) compiles data on this question from a variety of polling outlets. Recent results on gun laws are actually quite stable.

Most importantly of all, gun laws actually up for debate are incredibly popular. Our recent polling on concealed weapon reciprocity showed voters do not want Washington to allow people to bring concealed weapons to a state where they did not meet the state's requirements. This five-state bipartisan polling project for MAIG showed voters supporting a series of stricter gun laws, while opposing the less strict gun laws being debated in those states. My analysis of post-Tucson Gallup polling revealed a plurality of respondents volunteered some form of stricter gun laws as a way to "prevent mass shootings." And my post on the our bipartisan national survey for MAIG shows an incredible amount of support for a long list of gun laws, even among Republicans and in gun-owning households.

Despite hyperbolic coverage highlighting political divisions, voters are actually quite united on guns. Large numbers want to see guns out of dangerous hands, better cooperation between law enforcement agencies, concealed gun permits extended only to those meeting a state's requirements.