Gallup on Guns

The 2008 poll is a mix of the good, the bad and the worthless.

The latest available gallup polling (done early this year) supposedly reveals the following about American attitudes on guns:

73 percent believe the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own guns;

68 percent oppose banning handguns while 30 percent favor doing so;

One-third of Americans own a gun;

49 percent think gun laws should be stricter, 36 percent think they are strict enough and 11 percent want them relaxed; and

The percentage that favors stricter gun laws has fallen steadily since 9/11.

Some of these results are interesting; others are downright worthless. It is interesting that multiple polls over a number of decades have shown that the great majority of Americans believe they have a right to acquire and own guns. The importance of this is minimal. After all, it is the courts that decide what the Second Amendment means, not the voters.

What these polls do reinforce, however, is a cautionary note about gun bans for politicians who might think they will reduce crime.

These polls make it clear that enacting gun bans would produce disobedience by vast numbers of American gun owners who think the bans infringe their constitutional rights. (Gallup finds that virtually all admitted gun owners believe the Second Amendment gives them a right to arms.) So instead of reducing violence problems, banning guns would squander scarce law enforcement resources by redirecting them against vast numbers of people who are no danger to anyone.

A further implication of the results of the poll is that, insofar as gun bans are put to a vote, most voters would be opposed. Of course, how people answer when immediately confronted by a pollster may differ from how they would vote after the value of a gun ban has been debated in a long electoral campaign.

Some decades ago, the anti-gun movement was misled by Gallup and other pollsters into believing that most Americans are strongly anti-gun. So the anti-gun movement sponsored referenda in America's two most liberal states (California in 1982 and Massachusetts in 1976).

At the outset, polls showed strong majorities in favor of severely anti-handgun proposals in both states. But the result after the states' prolonged electoral debates on these proposals was an utter disaster for the anti-gun movement. In both states the proposals lost by overwhelming majorities.

Vast sums were expended by each side in the California referendum, but the anti-gun argument proved far less innately persuasive to the voters. University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua calculated the difference this way: The pro-gun side had to spend roughly $150,000 for each percent of the electorate it persuade, but the anti-gun side had to spend well over $1 million for each percent of the electorate it persuaded.

Returning now to the 2008 Gallup Poll, the fact that support for stricter gun laws has declined since 9/11 is interesting and perhaps somewhat indicative. But the underlying poll question is worthless: We don't know what people think existing gun laws are, and we have ample evidence that many--if not most--people have no accurate idea what they are.

So the fact that X percent generally feel gun laws are restrictive enough while Y percent think they should be more restrictive tells us nothing about what laws Americans actually want.

In contrast, questions about specific law proposals can be revealing in themselves and for what they imply more generally.

The fact that 68 percent in the Gallup poll now oppose banning handguns is especially meaningful, since a) banning handguns is the immediate goal of the anti-gun movement; and b) three decades ago American opinion was almost equally divided for and against handgun bans.

Gallup and other poll results on how many Americans own guns are not just worthless but actually misleading. We have firearms production and importation figures. Those are actual figures reflecting the existence of actual guns.

They indicate that Americans currently own more than 290 million guns. This is wildly inconsistent with the poll result that only one-third of Americans own guns. The low poll figure on gun ownership is very questionable, in an era where gun ownership is very controversial. All that these polls show is that when a stranger asks Americans whether they own firearms only one-third will admit it.

Many years of debate over proposals to ban handguns and other kinds of firearms--and place onerous new conditions on all guns--may induce gun owners to lie to strangers inquiring about household possession of firearms.

Moreover, for decades much of the mass media has indulged in the habit of stigmatizing firearms and firearms ownership, so that many gun owners might come to think of their weapon as a sort of guilty secret, like a pornography collection or a cache of marijuana, to be denied and lied about rather than openly acknowledged.

Whatever the reasons may be, it is clear that when asked by pollsters, many, many Americans falsely deny owning guns. For instance, in an early 1994 survey, respondent answers showed that 53 percent of American households contained a firearm. Yet a survey taken later in that same year found that only 34 percent did.

Obviously a substantial number of respondents in the second poll falsely denied that their households had guns. Either that or almost 19 million guns somehow disappeared.

And Another Thing
Changing the subject completely now, I was recently confronted by an e-mail from a newspaper reporter who asked: "I'm seeking people who have researched long-term trends in levels of gun-related crime, accidents, homicides, etc., in the United States; also research that might explain reasons for the long-term decline in gun violence or accidents despite long-term increases in gun ownership."

Here was my response: Virtually never do ordinary people, whether gun owners or not, commit serious violent crimes. Almost all violent crime, especially murder, is committed by people with long criminal records (who cannot legally own guns under our current laws). As to accidents, almost all gun "accidents" are committed by such people and/or people who are substance-dependent.

No one knows why violent crimes have declined so greatly over the last 15 years or why they accelerated so gre

atly in the 15 years after 1960. The gun lobbies, and some criminologists, say the decline in crime is at least partially explained by the fact that so many good people acquired guns that criminals are deterred from attacking them. There is impressive evidence to support that thesis.

A question remains. What explains two similar declines: one, fatal gun accidents declined from more than 2,500 per year in the late 1960s to fewer than 700 per year today; and two, during the 1990s gun suicides greatly declined. Both declines occurred during a period of vast increase in gun ownership, but how could such increases explain the declines?

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