Americans not ready for gun bans

We all know that public opinion, as expressed through polls, doesn’t dictate political outcomes. Otherwise, Congress would be homeless and living under a bridge, dreaming about the good ol’ days before job approval ratings of 14 to 17 percent. No, polls and the public opinion they reflect don’t rule. But they do have some influence in the margins and can explain how “reform” movements like the current gun control crusade aren’t gaining the traction they desire. A recent in-depth nationwide poll on guns, taken by the University of Connecticut for the Hartford Courant, illustrates how public opinion must be fully “ripe” before it goes to market and rings the register. This poll, taken Jan. 22-28, interviewed 1,002 adults.

The poll results include top-line talking points for most every point of view about guns. The pollsters themselves led with gun-control advocacy: “Majority supports measures aimed at curbing gun violence.” But to their credit, their opening paragraph of analysis concedes, “the overall question of gun control remains remarkably divisive.” Yes, it is.

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That the issue is “divisive,” that consensus has not emerged, is remarkable given the ostensibly galvanizing impact of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and the avalanche of nearly one-sided media coverage and advocacy campaigns that have ensued. (Yes, there is a reason that the Hartford Courant incurred the considerable expense to undertake this certain poll.) Even after having our hearts deeply and collectively touched as a people, our heads cannot be put together to endorse a particular response. From a pollster’s perspective, there are two problems for the reformers. One is that opinions aren’t especially intense on some of the key touchstones of gun control. A second impediment to reform is that Americans aren’t willing to completely abandon longtime freedoms to support a “ban” on anything. Americans may accept limits. They may accept restrictions. But they don’t do “bans.” No book bans. No speech bans. Because the gun-law reformers are overreaching to bans, they are failing.

Intensity is tough to come by when we’re talking American public opinion. Polls constantly demonstrate that Americans are all over the place on issues, so it is hard to mount a strong enough case to demand change in any single issue arena. And even when we focus on a particular need, like more jobs, we still would sell that out for a dozen other objectives. We even reelected a president who knows and cares almost nothing about job creation, even at the same time we were telling pollsters that jobs were the nation’s greatest need. Polls tell us jobs are important, but not controlling. There’s no intensity. That’s the conundrum faced by gun control advocates. People politely endorse controls but back off when other considerations come into play. Only intensity will keep Americans honest and consistent.

Intensity in a poll can be judged by a single number on a single question or by consistency across several questions. Gun control has neither, at least in the Courant poll. Ponder that just 42 percent of American “strongly” support “banning ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 bullets.” That means that a landslide majority — 58 percent — doesn’t strongly subscribe to this proposed ban. That’s a weak position for control advocates. And if it weren’t for Democrats, it would be pitiful. Two-thirds of independents and 8 out of 10 Republicans are lukewarm on clip bans. Then, when you add the finding that only 33 percent of American are “much more likely” to accept “some forms of gun control” after the “shootings in Newtown,” you see in this poll that the issue just isn’t ripe. And only 35 percent think “stricter gun control legislation” would be “very effective” in preventing mass shootings. Besides Democrats, there are no passionate believers in additional gun control. It’s just not ready for market.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.