Guns, Law And The Public's Confusion

An AR-15 rifle with bullets on an American flag, a symbol of the right of patriotic Americans to bear arms, guaranteed by the
An AR-15 rifle with bullets on an American flag, a symbol of the right of patriotic Americans to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

On April 6, 2013, the New York Times published an op-ed from two Democratic pollsters that reveals some startling facts about the gulf between what we think our gun laws say and reality. The authors summarize their take quite succinctly: "Americans don't really know what gun laws are on the books and [we] falsely construe that to mean they don't want common-sense gun laws passed -- when they [Americans] clearly do."

What does that mean? It means we, as a nation, think all kind of common-sense laws governing gun ownership are already law. We resist new gun laws because we collectively believe existing gun laws already lean hard on the 2nd Amendment and we are wary of trampling our constitutional rights.

Only, most of those laws don't exist.

I first wrote this article three years ago, but decided not to publish it, on the grounds that the pollsters who conducted this investigation were explicitly partisan and I could not find a neutral or opposing voice that supported the polls claims. I still can't.

But in the wake of the Orlando attacks, the issues surfaced in the poll are so critical that they are worthy of engagement, even if they can't be verified. So, with that caveat, here's what they found.

  • By a slight majority, Americans favor better enforcement of existing laws over new gun control laws. But they don't understand what laws are already on the books.
  • Ninety percent of gun owners believe that background checks should be required before a weapons purchase.
  • Among those who favor better enforcement over new law, about half believe background checks are currently required to buy a gun at a gun show or in a private transaction. However, this is only true in a handful of states.
  • A majority of Americans believe a gun cannot be sold to someone on a terrorist watch list (they can).
  • One-third of American believes law enforcement is notified when large numbers of guns are purchased in a short time (law enforcement, whether it is municipal, county, state or federal are in fact not notified).
  • Almost half of Americans believe ammunition cannot be legally bought over the internet (it can).
  • About half of Americans believe that military style assault weapons are illegal (and as we just saw in Orlando, they obviously are not illegal).

That presents a rather stark view of the policy problem. We, our American society, as a majority not just a plurality, gun owners as well as non-gun owners, believe that we should be careful in restricting gun ownership. We also care about defending the Constitution. And we believe we should limit those restrictions to those at greatest risk of committing gun violence: those with histories of gun violence, those with links to terrorist organizations and those with histories of domestic violence.

And we believe we already do.

But, we don't.