Gun Rights

Polls Offer Little Comfort for Supporters of Gun Control

Americans support tighter laws, but not as much as they distrust government and like owning guns.


People who advocate restricting gun ownership cite polls showing support for tighter firearms laws, but they're slow to point to evidence of support for owning the means of self-defense. For example, a majority of respondents in a recent poll say it's too easy to get a gun, but those who own them say having one makes them feel safer, and many non-owners are open to acquiring firearms. Further complicating matters for anti-gunners is that Americans overwhelmingly see threats to their safety in the government officials who enforce restrictive laws.

Cold Comfort for Prohibitionists

"A majority of Americans (61%) say it is too easy to legally obtain a gun in this country, while 30% say the ease of legally obtaining a gun is about right; 9% say it is too hard," Pew Research reported earlier this month. That's what gun control advocates like to hear, but it's really the only nugget of comfort they'll find in the survey.

"72% of U.S. gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun. That far surpasses the shares of gun owners who cite other reasons," the report adds. "And while a sizable majority of gun owners (71%) say they enjoy having a gun, an even larger share (81%) say they feel safer owning a gun."

Even more challenging for advocates of civilian disarmament, "about half of Americans who don't own a gun say they could never see themselves owning one (52%) while nearly as many could imagine themselves as gun owners in the future (47%)."

In fact, many of those who "don't own a gun" but "could imagine themselves as gun owners" may already have joined the ranks of those who do. While roughly one-third of respondents consistently tell pollsters they own guns, that almost certainly undercounts the total. Rutgers University's New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center recently assembled profiles of gun owners, applied them to those who claimed to not own guns, and concluded that the gun-owning share of the population is probably much higher than the official figure.

"It may be that a percentage of firearm owners are concerned that their information will be leaked and the government will take their firearms or that researchers who are from universities that are typically seen as liberal and anti-firearm access will paint firearm owners in a bad light," the authors noted.

When the Enforcers Are the Threat

Lying to researchers out of concern the government will obtain and misuse survey responses emphasizes a major challenge to gun control advocates: Americans overwhelmingly obtain firearms as a safety measure and also view the government itself as dangerous.

"Public trust in government remains low, as it has for much of the 21st century. Only two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right 'just about always' (2%) or 'most of the time' (19%)," Pew noted last year.

"Fifty-eight percent (58%) of voters believe that the federal government today is a threat to the freedom and liberty of individual Americans," pollster Scott Rasmussen found in 2021.

"Two in three Americans (67%) identify big government as the country's biggest threat," according to Gallup in 2017.

Undoubtedly, much of the negative feeling toward government has to do with who wields its power. That means politicians who already are widely distrusted. But in our political system it especially means representatives of hostile political factions who gain office as one election gives way to another. According to 2022 NBC News polling, roughly 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike say the other political party "poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America as we know it."

If you distrust the government and view it as a threat to your liberty—especially when, inevitably, control of its vast power falls into the hands of a political faction you fear—you'll probably see submitting to government attempts to track and limit civilian arms as a risky move. For a population that seeks safety in gun ownership, complying with restrictive firearms laws is a step in the wrong direction—no matter what survey respondents favor in the abstract.

Don't Forget Mundane Criminal Threats

Of course, protection isn't just about forting up against an overbearing state or enemy partisans. The desire to shield our families and ourselves from crime has long driven self-defense efforts. Crime rates and concerns about rising crime surged amidst chaos caused by COVID lockdowns and the social tensions of recent years. Video clips of flashmobs looting stores and stories of businesses closing their doors fuel the belief that many places, especially cities, are dangerous.

Fortunately, violent crime appears to be declining again as it was before pandemic-era disruptions. So are most property crimes other than car theft (which is up by a third over the same period last year). But that improvement is unlikely to boost confidence in the powers-that-be who are largely blamed for the mess.

"The ramifications of Covid policies advising people to abandon their offices are only beginning to be understood," John Chachas, the owner of luxury department store Gump's, wrote in an much-discussed open letter to the people of San Francisco. "Equally devastating have been a litany of destructive San Francisco strategies, including allowing the homeless to occupy our sidewalks, to openly distribute and use illegal drugs, to harass the public and to defile the city's streets."

There's that trust issue again. If government officials can't be trusted to protect the public, if instead they are thought to support policies that disrupt society and put people at risk, why would Americans obey limitations on their ability to protect themselves promoted by those same officials?

More Guns, Little Compliance with Restrictions

Gun sales are down from their peak according to analyses of FBI background check data. But Americans are still purchasing more than a million firearms per month. They're purchasing guns which 74 percent of owners told Pew researchers in 2017 are essential to their freedom, and which 72 percent now tell those same researchers are key to their protection. They're lying about owning firearms to researchers who they fear might identify them to government officials and political opponents they don't trust.

To put it bluntly, this is not an encouraging environment for advocates of gun restrictions. They might pass laws in jurisdictions under their control, but getting people to obey is an uphill battle.

"Data shows massive noncompliance with the assault weapon registration requirement," HudsonValleyOne reported in 2016 after New York tightened its laws, but before the rising tensions of recent years. "Based on an estimate from the National Shooting Sports Federation, about 1 million firearms in New York State meet the law's assault-weapon criteria, but just 44,000 have been registered."

"Compliance appears to have gotten worse," The Buffalo News noted last year. "While the Safe Act also required assault weapon owners to re-register their guns every five years, just 14,056 residents have submitted applications for recertification," down from 23,487 owners who registered in 2015.

That's discouraging for advocates of any sort of restrictions, though good news for those of us who prefer minimal government intrusion into people's lives. It also could have been predicted by anybody who knows the history of prohibitions—and of governments despised by their subjects.