"Do it for our kids." This is the new slogan of the gun-control movement. (See "Gun Play," July.) And according to a poll released last summer, most Americans find it a persuasive argument for a national ban on handguns.
A Lou Harris telephone survey of 1,250 adults commissioned by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation found that 52 percent of Americans favor a ban on handgun possession, except with special court approval. The New York Times and Nightline trumpeted the poll as marking a significant turnaround in public opinion.
But reporters failed to note that the survey artificially inflated support for a handgun ban with a series of skewed queries and tendentious assertions about how guns threaten children. Before respondents were asked about gun control, they heard 19 questions that mentioned children; of these, 12 mentioned or alluded to violence, and 10 explicitly connected guns to the harming of children, including suicide, homicide, and accidents.
One question asked: "Does it concern you or not that (1) when people's homes are broken into and they own a gun, the intruder might take the gun away from the owner and shoot him or her; (2) a common cause of injury or death among family members, especially children, results from their either cleaning or playing around with a gun; (3) people often forget to put the safety latch on guns around the house, and sometimes leave them loaded, which causes many accidental injuries or even death; (4) small guns that many women obtain because they are easier to use are mistaken by children as toy guns which they play with and injure themselves with."
Keating Holland, manager of the polling organization Yankelovich Partners, says the items that preceded the gun-control question may have raised support for a handgun ban by five to seven percentage points, perhaps more—enough to convert what was supposedly a majority in favor of a handgun ban into a plurality against, even without considering potential sampling error.
Support for a ban may also have been boosted by an ambiguity in the question, which said people "given permission by a court of law" would still be permitted to own handguns. Respondents may have taken this to mean that anyone with a good reason could obtain a handgun.
In a 1991 Gallup poll, 43 percent of respondents favored a ban on handgun possession "except by the police and other authorized persons." In a 1993 Luntz-Weber poll commissioned by the National Rifle Association, only 27 percent of those surveyed agreed that "no private individual should be allowed to own a handgun."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Loaded Questions".