Aurora And The Media Myth Of Public Opposition To Gun Control

Chris CillizzaIn the wake of last week's tragic mass shooting in Aurora, CO, some in the media are distorting public opinion and election results to predict that the events will not have an impact on the debate over gun violence prevention. In fact, polls indicate public support for a broad range of stronger gun restrictions, including the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, which may have prevented the legal purchase of one of the alleged shooter's guns.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza kicked off the debate with a piece published the morning after the shooting headlined “Why the Aurora shootings won't likely change the gun control debate”:

If history is any guide, however, the Aurora shootings will do little to change public sentiment regarding gun control, which has been moving away from putting more laws on the books for some time.


In 1990, almost eight in ten Americans said that the “laws covering the sales of firearms” should be made “more strict” while just 10 percent said they should be made “less strict” or “kept as they are now”. By 2010, those numbers had drastically shifted with 54 percent preferring less strict or no change in guns laws and 44 percent believing gun laws should be made more strict.

By Sunday the claim that Americans don't support tougher gun laws was a regular feature on the morning political talk shows. But if Congress is not moved by this tragedy to pass new gun violence prevention laws, it won't be because the American people oppose such measures.

In fact, other polls indicate that contrary to the result of the Gallup poll Cillizza cited, Americans support the passage of an array of new, stronger firearm sale laws.

Note that this appetite among the public for stronger gun laws includes the support of more than three in five for reinstating the nationwide ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. One of the weapons used by the alleged shooter was an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, which reportedly may have been banned under that law. Members of the House and Senate have called for bringing back the ban in response to the shooting. They enjoy the support of 62 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Independents and 49 percent of Republicans, according to a June 2011 Time magazine poll

Recent polls indicate that many other laws seeking to bolster gun violence prevention enjoy public support, including:

Nonetheless, claims similar to Cillizza's were offered by the hosts of CBS' Face the Nation:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just point out as surveys go, clearly, the public mood on this has changed. In 1990 polls suggested that eight people in ten wanted stricter gun laws. But a majority wanted now, in 2010, a majority favored no change in the law or-- or laws that were less strict. And it's still today, even after the Gabby Giffords' shooting, the country seems pretty much now just evenly split about whether there's a connection to stricter gun laws and-- and-- but, clearly, people seem to have changed their mind. They don't seem to see the connection now.

And Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

CHRIS WALLACE: Let me pick up on the other side of it now, the politics, because I think you would agree 15 or 20 years ago Democrats would have been all over this issue. There would have been demands for stricter gun control. And my guess is at that time, a president in the White House would have enjoyed those demands as we saw President Obama is now.

I want to put up perhaps one of the reasons why Democrats have taken a walk on this. In the early 90s, the Gallup poll that 78 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control regulation. That's now down to 44 percent. Isn't Senator Bayh right here, Kirsten, that the Democrats have given up on gun control.

Later on Fox News Sunday, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said that Democrats are being both “foolish” and “cowardly” for failing to act on gun control issues where they enjoy public support:

KRISTOL: I am a squish on gun control. I agree substantive with Kirsten, you can -- the reason those numbers have changed in that poll is originally in 1968 after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, gun control made controlling handguns. That is unreasonable. I think people have a right to handguns and hunting rifles. I don't think we have a right to semi- automatic machine -- quasi machine guns which can use -- shoot 100 bullets at a time.

And I actually think the Democrats are being foolish as they're being cowardly. I think there is more support for some moderate forms of gun control if they separate it clearly from the desire to take away everyone's handguns or hunting rifles.

Others in the media are using flawed analysis of past elections to suggest that the public would punish members of Congress who supported gun control. In appearances on NBC's Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, political analysts Bob Shrum, Evan Bayh, and Steve Schmidt all pushed the claim that the Democratic loss of congressional seats during the 1994 midterm elections was due to their support for gun control legislation in the previous term.

American Prospect contributing editor Paul Waldman (who previously worked for Media Matters) has debunked this narrative, noting that the endorsement of the National Rifle Association was worth roughly two percentage points for Republican challengers and nothing to Democratic or Republican incumbents, and only 12 GOP challengers won their elections that year by a margin of four points or fewer. Since the GOP picked up 54 House seats in that election, it seems clear, as Waldman states, that gun issues alone were not the cause of the 1994 wave election.

Additionally, in his Post piece, Cillizza writes that "[p]ublic opinion has also proven immune to past high profile tragedies involving guns," citing as an example the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. Cillizza states that “By October of that year, 51 percent favored stricter gun laws, a 5 percent decline from a similar Gallup survey taken in the fall of 2006.”

But Cillizza ignores that the shooting led to the passage of the first major gun violence prevention legislation in a decade. Days after the Virginia Tech attack, congressional Democrats and the National Rifle Association were working together on legislation to strengthen the national background-check system to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing weapons. The legislation was signed into law in January 2008; according to a 2011 poll, 89 percent of respondents support fully funding that legislation, again indicating the disparity between those who oppose stronger gun laws in theory and support them in practice.

In 2007 as well, some in the media predicted that no stronger gun control measures would come from a tragic shooting - predictions that proved inaccurate almost immediately. At the time, Media Matters' Jamison Foser wrote:

We don't need the media to tell us how they think the gun debate will play out, or what the public reaction would be. We need them to simply report the facts: What are the laws we have now? What evidence is there that they work, or don't work? What proposals to change the laws are out there? What are the arguments for and against? Those are the kinds of questions journalists should focus on, not trying to guess what will happen -- and misleadingly using data to do so.