What do Americans really think about regulating guns? A popular, long-running Pew poll asking Americans to choose whether gun "rights" or gun "control" are more important suggests a wide schism in public opinion on gun laws. But Colleen Barry, a public policy scholar at Johns Hopkins, couldn’t find an up-to-date public opinion survey that addressed specific gun measures in detail. So she created one -- and was surprised at its findings.
BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. Central to the President’s gun safety message this week was the assertion that the reforms he is advocating reflect what most Americans want.
OBAMA: And what’s often ignored in this debate is that a majority of gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.
BOB: In his speech, the president insisted that it’s Congress-- not the American public-- that is divided when it comes to reforming national gun policy.
OBAMA: “Until we have a Congress that's in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives, actions that protect our rights and our kids.”
BOB: Wait...the Congress is out of step with the mainstream about guns? That’s not what we’re hearing on TV.
CNN: Gun control is once again a hot issue for politicians and public debate. A Pew research poll shows Americans are almost even split on whether it is better to control guns or protect gun ownership.
MSNBC: Americans are more closely divided on rights and the effectiveness of gun laws. 47% say it more important to control gun rights while 50% say it is the need to control gun ownership.
ABC: Americans are deeply divided. In our latest poll, asked which is a higher priority? 46% said new gun control laws 47% said protecting the right to own guns.
BOB: So which is it? How much consensus is there really on this issue-- and if Obama is right, where does this persistent idea about a “nation divided” come from? Health-policy scholar Colleen Barry has some thoughts on that. She is Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research. Colleen, welcome to OTM.
BARRY: Good to be here.
BOB: I gather some of the disconnect stems from one particular tracking poll that is kind of a benchmark for measuring the public's mind on this question. Tell me about the Pew poll.
BARRY: Yep. So, the Pew Center polls asks respondents, what do you think is more important: to protect the rights of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership. And they've been asking this question for about twenty years, which is great, to be able to track opinion over time. However there are a number of real concerns about the Pew Center question.
BOB: Because the language, you should excuse the expression, is loaded.
BARRY: The concept of priming is well established in social science research, and it suggests that using terms like "rights" versus "controls" may prime respondents in a manner that could bias their response, so generally, we think of rights as good things and control as less desirable. And this type of priming may be more pronounced as we've moved into an increasingly polarized time.
BOB: But beyond the incendiary possibilities of the language, there's also the question of its lack of specificity. You've learned that when you get a little more granular, the opinions seem to magically change.
BARRY: That's exactly right. In the weeks following the Sandy Hook tragedy, I learned that most of what we knew about public attitudes around gun policy were these questions like the Pew question which capture a general public mood. And so we went into the field to collect using rigorous research methods, data on public attitudes for 30 different specific policies.
BOB: Give me some examples of some of the policies that the respondents as a whole tended to endorse.
BARRY: Our survey found very high levels of support for background checks for all gun sales over 80% support among gun owners and non gun owners alike. Americans including gun owners in majority supported a whole range of policies to restrict guns from people who were at highest risk for gun related incidents including prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence, prohibiting a person on a terrorist watch list, requiring prison time for a person knowingly selling a gun to a person who was prohibited, gun violence restraining order policies, like the one that was just enacted in California.
BOB: Now, as you mentioned, this seminal bit of reserach happened right in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. Clearly the public was sensitized to the dangers of guns in the society. So sensitized that maybe these results are themselves dubious. What did you do to correct for the recency effect?
BARRY: What we ended up doing was going back into the field in January of 2015 where there were no major events that occurred, and asking those same questions related to different policies: and I was genuinely surprised that for the majority of the policies, we saw virtually no differences in support over time and between gun owners and non gun owners.
BOB: Now, Colleen, you are not a gun policy expert, you're a public health policy researcher, and you made what I regard to be a kind of shocking discovery: that on this major major issue, there turns out to be very little data for congress or anyone else to consult.
BARRY: That's exactly right. The last study that had been done, published, related to Americans attitudes on gun policy was over a decade old, and that was what motivated us to conduct our study in 2013 originally.
BOB: That's phenomenal. So if you want to know about Americans views on abortion, there's an embarrassment of riches. if you want to know about Americans views on taxation, troves of opinion data. But when it's guns, and society, there's bupkis.
BARRY: We have had a very challenging time in this country doing research on any issues related to gun policy in part because of the difficulty of getting funding including federal funding for gun policy research.
BOB: Colleen, thank you very very much.
BARRY: My pleasure.
BOB: Colleen Barry is a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University.
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