Still Waiting for That Pro-Gun-Control Groundswell


White House

After the Senate gun control bill died last week, The New York Times said "Democratic leadership aides promised that the effort could be revived if a public groundswell demanded it." Claiming support from nine out of 10 Americans, President Obama and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) angrily urged the public to rise up in righteous fury and demand action. The results of a new poll by the Pew Research Center can be summed up as a three-word reply to such hopes: not gonna happen.

According to the survey, the share of Americans who reacted negatively to the Senate vote fell short of a majority, with 15 percent describing themselves as "angry" and 32 percent saying they were "disappointed." Not exactly a groundswell in favor of gun control. On the other side, 20 percent said they were "very happy" about the vote and 19 percent described themselves as "relieved." In short, even immediately after supporters of new gun controls bombarded the public with images of dead children and grieving parents, insisting that anyone who disapproves of mass murder has no choice but to vote for the president's policy proposals, there is only an eight-point difference between supporters and opponents of the legislation, and opponents seem to feel more strongly about the issue. Pew also found, in addition to a predictable partisan divide, that opposition to the bill was especially strong among those who said they were following the issue "very closely," 31 percent of whom said they were very happy the bill failed, compared to 22 percent who were angry.  

That last result is consistent with the hypothesis that the more people knew about the gun control legislation, the more likely they were to oppose it. Which reinforces a point that should be kept in mind whenever anyone cites public approval of a policy as a reason to support it: The public does not necessarily know what the hell it's talking about. That is demonstrably true in the case of "assault weapon" bans, which received majority support in polls taken after the Sandy Hook massacre, probably because most people don't know what an "assault weapon" is. Likewise, Obama is fond of saying that 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks for gun buyers, which is what a CBS News survey conducted in January found. To be precise, 92 percent of respondents said they favored "a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers." Yet Obama himself says "most Americans think that's already the law." How well-informed can support for requiring private sellers to run background checks be if most people who favor the idea don't even realize it would represent a change in policy? Might these people be less inclined to support this proposal if they were not only familiar with current law but understood the reasons why background checks are not effective at keeping criminals from obtaining guns as well as the burdens and risks that a universal mandate would entail?

In addition to the question of whether poll participants know enough about a particular issue to offer an informed opinion, there is the question of whether the values they are expressing are good or bad. I shudder to think what would happen if we put the Bill or Rights to a vote; the whole point of constitutional rights is to put certain matters beyond the reach of transient majorities. Substantial majorities may well support policies that I view as morally unacceptable even if they are constitutional, such as criminalizing consensual exchanges between adults. That does not mean I am wrong. Conversely, I am glad that most Americans now seem to support marijuana legalization, and I think they are right to do so. Ditto with gay marriage. But I do not see majority support as proof that I was right on these issues all along.

I am sure that Obama and Giffords likewise do not think they are right about gun control because polls indicate most people agree with them. Nor are they about to change their views when the polls shift. Yet they demand that legislators do what the majority (supposedly) wants, regardless of whether the legislators think it's a good idea, and bizarrely claim that to do otherwise shows a lack of integrity.