Flawed Poll Presents False Choice Between Stopping Gun Violence And Protecting Gun Rights

The Washington Post relied on a flawed polling question to conclude that there is a “bitter and stark division” on the issue of gun violence as it relates to the 2016 election.

The Washington Post and ABC News asked respondents, “Which do you think should be a higher priority right now - (enacting new laws to try to reduce gun violence), or (protecting the right to own guns)?” in a survey conducted earlier this month.

46 percent of participants chose “enacting new laws to try to reduce gun violence,” compared to 47 percent who chose “protecting the right to own guns.” In its October 26 article on the poll, the Post describes the result as an indication of “bitter and stark division on whether new gun laws should trump the constitutional right to gun ownership.” But the question presents a false choice: it is entirely possible to both protect gun rights and enact laws to reduce gun violence. For example, as the Post article itself acknowledges, proposals to expand background checks are overwhelmingly popular with the public. Background checks do not interfere with “the right to own guns” for lawful gun owners.

The Post/ABC News question is similar to a question used by Pew Research Center that Pew has acknowledged is flawed. For years Pew has asked the public to choose whether it is more important to “control gun ownership” or to “protect the right of Americans to own guns.” Like the Post question, this presents respondents with a false choice.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has criticized the Pew question, explaining, “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. 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.”

In response to the criticism, Pew acknowledged to Mother Jones that the question is flawed and said that Webster “is right to put it in context.”