"Controlling" the Gun Debate: An Open Letter to All Pollsters

By not revisiting their question language, polling outlets are actually influencing the debate by suggesting there is less support for stronger gun laws than actually exists.
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These days, the gun debate is not about whether one has the right to own a gun, but about how to balance those existing rights against the need to prevent gun violence. But while the debate has changed, polling questions have not. Pew released some tracking this week showing movement to the left on gay marriage, along with movement to the right on guns. However, the Pew question on "gun control," whose wording goes back about twenty years, is both over-broad and an anachronism. And many outlets use similar language.

(Disclosure: my firm, Momentum Analysis, has done numerous projects for the bipartisan group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. You can read my previous posts on guns here and here, and on my work for the group here, here and here.)

Gun "Control" is an anachronism. Look at the exact wording of the Pew question: "What do you think is more important -- to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?" This question uses the language of the gun lobby (rights), not the language of those working for stronger gun laws (safety). And it pits a right versus simply "control" for its own sake.

I don't assume nefarious motives on Pew's part. When this question was first written, "control" was indeed part of the gun debate vernacular. But it is no longer. Using the word "control" is a poor description of that side's position. (While the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was once called Handgun Control, Inc., the group hasn't had` "control" in its name in over ten years.)

What if there was decades of tracking of something like "what do you think is more important -- to protect the rights of gun owners, or to protect the safety of everyone from gun violence?" Results would, to be sure, be different from the current question.

"Gun control" is overly broad. What do respondents think of when asked whether they support "gun control"? Are they thinking about a ban on all guns, including hunting rifles? Or are they thinking about preventing people accused of domestic violence from getting a gun at a gun show without a background check and then bringing that gun across state lines? We simply don't know. Not that a broad question on attitudes toward gun laws can't be useful, but we should simply understand its limitations.

By comparison, a gay marriage question is more straightforward. While there are, of course, nuances to the gay marriage debate (a civil union alternative, recognition by other states, etc.), we can be reasonably sure all participants are responding to roughly the same concept. A question about "gun control" could mean just about anything.

All outlets could use a gun question rewrite. Pew is not the only polling outlet using outdated language. CBS, ABC/Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Gallup all have used the word "control" in their recent national surveys. In many of these questions, the word "control" can easily be cut, such as in the ABC/Washington Post question, "Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws in this country?" However, I prefer a three-way question about whether laws should be made stronger, weaker, or "kept the same." Gallup, NBC/WSJ, CBS/NYT, and Time Magazine have all asked a three-way question, although the latter two, again, include the word "control." (The Polling Report has a good collection of gun questions across outlets.)

But pollsters should also follow-up a broad question with questions about specific, relevant proposals up for debate. Gallup, as I wrote here, continues to ask decades-old questions on a handgun ban, producing headlines like this one. Many other outlets, such as ABC/Washington Post and CBS, continue to test handgun bans and high-capacity magazine bans that are simply not part of the legislative debate. As our polling has shown, huge numbers support recent proposals to strengthen gun laws by requiring background checks for all gun purchases, or allowing states to decide concealed gun permit requirements laws for themselves.

For some time, Americans have recognized private gun ownership as a right; the debate is now about how (or whether!) to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Polling outlets should reflect this change by adjusting their broad question, and adding (or changing) their specific proposal questions. By not revisiting their question language, polling outlets are actually influencing the debate by suggesting there is less support for stronger gun laws than actually exists.

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