Media Criticism

People Magazine Wants You to Bug Your Representatives for More Gun Laws; What do the People Think?

Not what People wants them to think.

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People magazine made news today by taking a stand and asking all its readers to contact their elected representatives (with contact info provided) in the name of doing something to (further) halt gun violence (which the story doesn't note has been largely on a downhill climb from a 90s height).

As usual, they don't say specifically what they want done legally (since saying what and comparing the likely effects of that "what" to most of the kinds of gun violence that make news and make people write things like this would reveal the two have no connection), merely that they want to ensure Congress is "looking for solutions and not giving up."

Jesse Walker wrote for us last year about a study that found that even terrible public tragedies have no apparent long term effect on people's attitudes about guns:

Josh Blackman, a law professor, and Shelby Baird, a political scientist, have published an interesting paper in theConnecticut Law Review on what they call "the shooting cycle"—the pattern the public reaction seems to follow in the wake of a widely covered mass shooting….

Looking at polling data from the last few shooting cycles, Blackman and Baird conclude that there isn't just a regression to the mean, but that "the mean is in fact declining. In other words, after each spike subsides, support for gun control is even lower than it was before the shooting." They don't think this pattern is inevitable, but for now, "Less support for gun control laws after tragedies is the normal reaction to mass shootings. Not the other way around."

In the wake of last week's Oregon murders, NBC News sums up the bad news for People:

when you look at the poll numbers Americans are not clambering for gun control, particularly when you look at the number over time…

Gallup has been asking the same question on gun laws since 1990: In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now? And in that time the percentage of Americans calling for the laws to be tightened has fallen sharply.

In 1990, 78% of Americans said they believed the laws should be made "more strict." In 2014, that "more strict" number was 47%. That's a 31-point drop in support for tighter gun sale laws.

Events like this week's Oregon shooting matter. In the days following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, Gallup's "more strict" number climbed to 58%. But that poll was within a week of the shooting and in less than a year, the number was back down to 49%….

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones with more bad news for his readers who want to believe the people's will means more gun control:

I routinely read lefties who quote polls to show that the country agrees with us on pretty much everything. Voters support teachers, they support the environment, they support financial reform, they support gun control.

But this is a bad misreading of what polls can tell us. There are (at least) two related problems here:

• Most polls don't tell us how deeply people feel. Sure, lots of American think that universal background checks are a good idea, but they don't really care that much. In a recent Gallup poll of most important problems, gun control ranked 22nd, with only 2 percent rating it their most important issue. Needless to say, though, gun owners are opposed to background checks, and they care a lot.

• Most polls don't tell us about the tradeoffs people are willing to make. In the abstract, sure, maybe a majority of Americans think we should make it harder to buy guns. But if there's a real-world price to pay how willing are they to pay it? A few months ago, a Pew poll that pitted gun control against gun rights found that gun rights won by 52-46 percent.