Much has been made of a recent CBS poll showing declining support for "stricter gun control laws." But as argued in a new report for Center for American Progress (written by myself, an all-star bipartisan team of pollsters, and CAP Senior Fellow Arkadi Gerney), a survey question focused on broader views toward gun law fails to capture the reality of the debate.
First, the CBS poll question includes the phrase "gun control." As I've written about before, and in the above report, the word "control" is aggressive, outdated, and shown to immediately weaken support for stronger gun laws. It should be scrubbed from polling language.
Further, we simply have no idea what people are responding to when asked about "stricter gun control laws." Are they thinking about background checks? A new federal trafficking law? Mandatory buy-backs and confiscation? We just don't know. This makes the question less useful in nailing down public opinion.
Here's what we do know. There has been consistent, support for a variety of specific stronger gun laws, even before Newtown. In August 2012, CNN/ORC found overwhelming support for background checks (96 percent), and majority support for both an assault weapon ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines (57 percent, 60 percent, respectively). These numbers are essentially unchanged now (Fox News, March 19: 85 percent support background checks, 54 percent ban on high-capacity magazines, 51 percent ban assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons). Other outlets show similar results.
Here's what else we know. The NRA's main plan: more armed guards in school, has weathered a precipitous drop in support in the last few months. In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, Pew found 64 percent supported more armed guards in school. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, support was evenly divided (50 percent support), a drop from their own earlier polling (55 percent support in January). Fox News polling also shows almost a 10-point drop since January in support for armed guards, while support for other proposals remain more consistent.
While on some gun questions support fluctuates, the president's main gun law priorities remain popular. It is politicians who have moved on these popular policies, not the public. And if anyone has missed their moment of a public opinion boost, it's NRA lobbyists, not stronger gun law advocates.