Washington, D.C. — The Newtown shooting changed Americans’ views on guns, but support for action was likely stronger before the tragedy at Sandy Hook than major polling outlets and the resulting media coverage suggested, according to a new analysis released today by the Center for American Progress. Co-authored by a bipartisan team of nine pollsters who have each conducted public-opinion research on attitudes toward guns in recent years, the analysis identifies the ways in which pre-Newtown polling missed emerging trends of Americans’ views on gun issues.
“Pollsters who work in this area can tell you the public opinion on guns has been consistent for years,” Margie Omero, Democratic pollster and president of Momentum Analysis. “By closely examining differences in question wording, demographic breakouts, and trends in media polling, we were able to document that Americans have been ready for stronger gun laws, even more so now post-Newtown.”
According to the analysis, too much of the pre-Newtown polling suffered from the following three errors, omissions, or oversights:
1. An over-reliance on broad, overall climate questions, with too few policy drilldowns. One of the most consistent findings in gun polling is that support for “gun control” broadly is lower than support for specific tighter gun laws.
2. An over-reliance on outdated policy questions. Despite the 2008 Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing that a complete ban on handguns was off the table, pollsters continued to ask questions about support for handgun bans. Between the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 and its most recent post-Newtown poll, for example, Gallup asked Americans about support for a ban on handguns 13 times. Conversely, during that same window of time, Gallup asked about closing gun-sale background loopholes—a policy actually under debate in Washington—just three times.
“On the questions of extending background checks to all gun sales, the level of support is truly remarkable,” said Bob Carpenter, a Republican pollster and president of Chesapeake Beach Consulting. “Universal background checks has near-universal support: from men and women, Democrats and Republicans, gun owners and those who don’t own guns.”
3. An over-reliance on the outdated language. Protecting gun rights is a clearer and more compelling explanation of the goals of gun violence. On the contrary, the term “gun control” negatively biases responses in a way the terms like “strengthening gun laws” or “gun violence prevention” do not.
The co-authors of the brief also spell out the ways in which Newtown has changed the debate. The Newtown shooting had a greater impact on public opinion about guns than any other gun event in the past two decades—and led to a clear rise in public support for stronger gun laws. In particular, three aspects about public opinion in the wake of Newtown are notable:
- There is now near-unanimous support for universal background checks and clear majority support for high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans.
- There is almost as much support for stronger gun laws among gun owners as among the general public.
- Regardless of party affiliation, women are more supportive of stronger gun laws broadly and more likely to support specific proposals.
Read the full issue brief: What the Public Really Thinks About Guns by Margie Omero, Michael Bocian, Bob Carpenter, Linda DiVall, Diane T. Feldman, Celinda Lake, Douglas E. Schoen, Al Quinlan, Joshua Ulibarri, and Arkadi Gerney
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To review CAP’s resources on gun-violence prevention, click here.