The new Pew survey on gun owners contains a very interesting section on how gun owners and nonowners agree and disagree about laws which define how we buy and use guns. And the different opinions of the two groups in this respect is very important because, when all is said and done, the issue of how much to regulate guns is where the two sides basically divide.
When the survey was first published, many of the gun violence prevention (GVP) groups were pleased to discover that a majority of gun owners supported preventing guns from getting into the hands of the mentally ill, mandating background checks on all gun show sales, and restricting sales to individuals on the no-fly list. While support for all three policies also gained overwhelming buy-in from the non-gun side, the gap between the two sides was, at best, only a couple of points, with the overall positives averaging 86 percent for non-owners and averaging 82 percent for the folks who owned guns. In other words, for certain policies to curb gun violence, both sides basically agree.
What the gun-control advocates perhaps didn’t realize, however, is that when Pew asked respondents to rate their feelings about gun laws which weaken, rather than strengthen how and where people can carry guns, the gap between the two sides becomes much wider, almost to the point where there’s really no agreement at all. In fact, for such policies as allowing concealed-carry in more locations or arming teachers, the positives from the gun owning side led the non-owners by 30 points. A wide differential between the two groups was also reported in such initiatives as banning assault rifles or hi-capacity magazines, in both cases of course it was the gun owning group which was 30 percent ahead of non-owners in resisting such laws.
How is it that there appears to be very little difference between gun owners and non-owners on public policies promoted by gun-control advocates yet when it comes to pro-gun issues, pro-gun supporters are two to three times more supportive than folks on the other side? And don’t make the mistake of thinking that gun owners support expanding background checks, for example, because this policy is favored by the NRA. In fact, the NRA has specifically come out against any further extension of background checks and they have also hedged on the mental health issue, so it’s not as if gun owners who answered the Pew survey were necessarily taking their cues from the Fairfax boys.
I think an interesting answer to this question can be found in a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) article, ’The March of Science – The True Story,’ that talks about the degree to which we often resist accepting evidence, even strong, scientifically-based evidence, if it conflicts with what we want to believe. The author, Lisa Rosenbaum, M.D., cites a famous Stanford study in which the researchers found that participants who favored the death penalty disregarded or downplayed the value of research which did not find a connection between capital punishment and deterrence of crime, whereas opponents of the death penalty found the same research to be credible and – wait for this one – “the net effect of exposing proponents and opponents of capital punishment to identical evidence was to increase further the gap between their views.”
When faced with uncomfortable facts, people will fall back on the idea that the research process which generated the troubling data was corrupt and therefore shouldn’t be believed. The same people who told Pew they favored making it easier to walk around with a gun also told Pew that keeping a gun in the home made them feel safe. How many times have you heard Gun-nut Nation mouthpieces say that public health research showing that guns are a risk rather than a benefit promotes a ‘political agenda’ and therefore should be dismissed or ignored? When all is said and done, I’m not so sure that the opinion gap about guns is as narrow as some of my GVP friends would like to believe.