What The Media Isn't Saying About Support For Stronger Gun Laws

Top Gun Violence Researchers Criticize Pew's “Outlier” Gun Rights Survey Result

Media outlets are heavily touting a poll from Pew Research Center supposedly showing “growing public support for gun rights,” but Pew's polling question is flawed because it presents a false choice between regulating gun ownership and protecting gun rights. In response to the Pew poll, a prominent gun violence researcher said, “I could not think of a worse way to ask questions about public opinions about gun policies.”

On December 10, Pew released the results of a periodic survey that asks respondents whether it is more important to “control gun ownership” or to “protect the right of Americans to own guns.” Since January 2013, support for the gun rights answer is up seven points to 52 percent, while support for regulating guns has fallen five points to 46 percent.

The results have been highly touted in media, especially by conservative outlets, without discussion of the context of the poll question.

According to experts, the question is flawed because respondents have to pick between support for gun regulation or gun rights, as if those premises were mutually exclusive.

Academics from a top gun violence research program are criticizing the wording of Pew's polling question. In a statement, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said, “I could not think of a worse way to ask questions about public opinions about gun policies.”

“Pew's question presents one side emphasizing the protection of individual rights versus restricting gun ownership. The question's implicit and incorrect assumption is that regulations of gun sales infringe on gun owners' rights and control their ability to own guns,” Webster explained. “The reality is that the vast majority of gun laws restrict the ability of criminals and other dangerous people to get guns and place minimal burdens on potential gun purchasers such as undergoing a background check. Such policies enjoy overwhelming public support.”

According to Webster, “Far better and more accurate surveys ask about support for laws that prohibit dangerous people from having guns and basic accountability measures such as universal background checks, penalties for gun trafficking, and regulatory oversight of gun dealers.”

Beth McGinty, an assistant professor at the Center for Gun Policy and Research, also noted, “This poll is a real outlier in terms of what we know about broad public opinion support for gun safety policies, which is not surprising given how the questions were asked. Unfortunately, media reporting to date on the findings has largely ignored the important weaknesses in the survey.”

Indeed, media coverage of Pew's question creates a misleading perception that a choice must be made between protecting gun rights and supporting broadly popular gun safety regulations.

For example, legislation to expand background checks to all gun sales -- the leading gun safety proposal -- received 92 percent support (including from 92 percent of gun owners) in a July Quinnipiac University poll. It is well-settled law that requiring a background check for a gun sale does not infringe on the Second Amendment right to own a gun.

Shoddy poll question construction on the gun issue has led to a phenomenon where Americans typically enthusiastically support specific gun safety measures to regulate firearms, but then show less support when asked to pit “gun control” against “gun rights.”

Media outlets are often responsible for producing or uncritically reporting on flawed gun polling questions.