Gun control advocates often point to polls showing overwhelming support for gun control. For instance, in May, a headline for an NPR/PBS Newshour survey proclaimed: “Most Americans say curbing gun violence is more important than gun rights.”
But is that really the choice Americans face on gun control?
The survey asked, “Do you think it is more important to control gun violence or to protect gun rights?” It found that American adults preferred reducing gun violence (60 percent) over protecting gun rights (38 percent). Besides extensive reporting on the poll by NPR and PBS, the survey received massive news coverage in such outlets as USA Today and The Hill, with headlines echoing NPR’s.
The problem is, however, that while the media label gun control proponents as supporting “safety” and wanting to “reduce violence,” people on both sides of the gun control debate advocate for such things. “Gun rights” do not inherently imply increased gun violence. Indeed, such violence can be curbed by protecting the right of people to defend themselves against it.
To create a more balanced survey, the Crime Prevention Research Center, which I head, hired McLaughlin and Associates in June and reworked this problematic NPR/PBS question. Instead, we asked, “Which of the following methods do you think is more effective in reducing violent crime?” with the options “Allowing people to protect themselves with guns” or “Enacting stricter gun laws.” Nine percent said they “don’t know.”
According to the rest of our 1,000 likely general election voter respondents, participants favored stricter gun laws by a margin of only 5 percentage points. This is not a statistically significant difference, especially when compared to NPR’s much larger 22-point margin.
There were also problems with many of the other questions in the NPR/PBS survey. For example, respondents were asked whether they support “stand your ground” laws. However, the survey itself described these laws as allowing people to “kill or injure the person who they think is threatening them.”
This question neglected to consider the “reasonable person” standard, the assumption that a “reasonable person” would have to believe himself to be at serious risk of death or injury, and would only then be allowed to use proportional force. The NPR/PBS survey is vague, making it seem as if anyone can kill another person based on arbitrary discretion.
Their survey still found the majority supporting “stand your ground” laws, 58 percent to 40 percent — but that’s actually an underestimate. I rephrased the question and explained the “reasonable person” standard as well as clarified that the force used must be “proportional” to the harm faced.
The results of our survey found that the “stand your ground” laws received overwhelming support, 66 percent approval to 23 percent disapproval. That is more than double the margin found by NPR/PBS. What’s more, all demographic groups supported the laws — even Democrats (52 to 35 percent) and women (61 to 24 percent).
Finally, we reworked the NPR/PBS question on mass shootings. Their survey asked, “When you hear about a mass shooting in the U.S., is your first reaction: ‘More people need to carry guns’ [or] ‘The country needs stricter gun laws.’” Based on this question, they found that respondents supported stricter laws, 62 percent to 35 percent.
We slightly changed the options in the question, asking instead, “When you hear about a mass shooting in the U.S., do you think we need: ‘To allow people to protect themselves with guns’ [or] ‘To enact stricter gun laws.’”
While we still found that more people supported stricter gun laws, it was by a much narrower 51 to 41 percent — a little over one-third of the margin reported by NPR/PBS.
Organizations such as NPR and PBS spend our tax dollars on surveys that paint gun control in the best possible light. But clearly, small changes in the questions dramatically change the polling results. That isn’t just true in this case — it also goes for surveys on specific gun control proposals such as red-flag laws and so-called universal background checks.
In reality, so much of the supposed support for gun control is simply a mirage.