Half of Gun Owners Support an Assault Rifle Ban, So Why Are Politicians Still so Afraid of the NRA?

06/08/2015 01:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, public opinion polls appeared to show widespread support for strengthening gun laws that would make it more difficult for 'prohibited persons' to gain access to guns. In particular, support was strongest for an extension of the NICS background check system to cover most secondary transfers of firearms beyond the initial, counter-top transfer that is covered now. It was this public sentiment which led to the crafting of such legislation, known as Manchin-Toomey, which nevertheless fell short of the votes needed to move the bill through the Senate in April, 2013.

One of the post-Newtown polls showing wide, public support for expanded background checks was conducted by researchers at the Bloomberg Public Health School at Johns Hopkins University, and now that I've mentioned the unmentionable, those readers in the pro-gun community will please do everyone a favor and keep their comments to themselves. The bottom line from this survey was that gun owners and non-gun owners expressed similar degrees of support for universal background checks, prohibitions on ownership for persons convicted of violating domestic restraining orders and mandatory sentences for gun traffickers. Where significant differences appeared between the two groups, however, involved 'bans' on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; the word 'ban' being toxic to gun owners but much less concerning to those who don't own guns.

The Bloomberg group has just released a new poll which, in terms of methodology and sampling, more or less replicates the same poll that was published in 2013. It will shortly appear in the journal Preventive Medicine, but I was able to examine an advance copy of the text. The authors note that in the intervening two years since their last survey, public opinion appears to have shifted away from more gun regulations and is now swinging towards stronger support of 'gun rights.' But comparing such data to the more specific policy-oriented questions which comprise this new survey is really oranges versus apples, since such phrases as 'gun rights' and 'gun control' are simply too vague and too loaded to explain much about public opinion at all.

The new Bloomberg survey shows that there remains a basic bedrock of public opinion that expanding background checks to secondary gun transfers is a good thing to do. In 2013, support for this measure among gun owners and non-gun owners was above 80 percent, both numbers shifted only slightly in the current survey and the difference between gun owners and non-gun owners was negligible at best. On the other side of the ledger, i.e., banning assault rifles and high-capacity mags, there was again a decisive difference between gun owners who said 'no' and non-gun owners who said 'yes,' although in this case the percentage of non-gun owners who favored weapon and ammunition bans appears to have slipped.

What I find significant is that 45 percent of gun owners in both surveys support bans on the sale of assault rifles and high-cap mags. Researchers who focus on policy issues traditionally look for majority opinion as a guide to what may or may not be possibly changed in the public domain. But the fact that slightly less than half of all gun owners support the ban on assault rifles is a finding which needs to be considered on its own terms.

I can't think of a single issue that has generated more noise and more hype in the gun community than the issue of assault rifles over the last several years. From the phony attempt by the NSSF to dress up these guns as 'modern sporting rifles,' to the prancing around by Colion Noir, the industry has done everything it can to promote these guns as akin to motherhood and apple pie. That nearly 50 percent of gun owners don't buy this nonsense should give pause to those who still regard the NRA as a behemoth when it comes to influencing public opinion about guns. To me, it's more like a case of the emperor without clothes.