Does the Public Really Oppose Gun Restrictions?

In the wake of the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, there is a sense that this time there could be some concrete policy changes when it comes to guns. One issue that comes up in much of the coverage is the notion that the public’s view on gun control has shifted towards the “pro-gun” side in recent years.  It’s important to look at that assumption.

Gun store sign near Phoenix, Arizona. (photo: Xomiele)

How popular are they really? (photo: Xomiele)

In the New York Times  (12/16/12), readers were told:

Americans remain closely divided on the issue of gun rights, but public support for stricter gun-control laws has waned since 2008, according to several polls taken before the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

USA Today‘s cover story (12/17/12) declared that 

a consensus appeared to be growing that a new look at gun controls, even in the face of political and social opposition, was forming in a nation shocked by senseless violence.

The piece went on to describe how “moves to restrict guns further will face powerful opposition in a country where nearly half of Americans have guns in their homes.” They added:

Despite the increased lethal power of firearms, Americans have been trending away from more gun laws, both in their attitudes and in lawmaking. Guns were overwhelmed by economic concerns in the 2012 presidential election.

Americans have increased their support for gun ownership and opposition to new gun laws in recent years. Self-reported gun ownership (45 percent) is at the highest level since 1993. A new ban on semiautomatic weapons–supported in the 1990s and as recently as 2004–was opposed 53 percent-43 percent.

At the beginning of this year, half of Americans said they were satisfied with the nation’s gun laws in general, compared with 25 percent who said they should be more strict and 8 percent who said they should be less strict.

The polls these accounts seem to cite most frequently are Gallup surveys–and others–that tend to ask broad questions about feelings about current gun laws. Those surveys tend to show the public is less than enthusiastic about any new regulations. But that should raise questions about whether respondents know what current gun regulations looks like.

But what if more specific questions were asked, about particular weapons? Those polls exist too. A recent CNN poll (8/7/12-8/8/12) found a sizable majority (57 percent) favoring a “ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns.” Sixty percent supported a “ban on the sale and possession of equipment known as high-capacity or extended ammunition clips.” And a CBS-New York Times poll (1/15/11-1/19/11) found 63 percent support for banning assault weapons. 

 As Ladd Everitt of the Campaign to Stop Gun Violence told CounterSpin (1/14/11), there is broad support for these kinds of gun regulations–despite the assertions, after tragedies like this, that the public is unlikely to be swayed. And as Eric Boehlert pointed out this summer (Media Matters, 7/27/12), media rarely discuss the bare facts about gun violence, which kills 30,000 Americans every year.

It is difficult to have a sensible conversation about gun laws when there is no sensible conversation about guns in the media. 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.