Obama's Gun-Control Package Polls Well, With One Big Caveat

Steven Shepard

In the weeks following the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, most of this country's major pollsters have surveyed Americans on their opinions of initiatives proposed to prevent another tragic mass shooting. The differences in their results are revealing and shed light on the messaging goals and challenges for each side as the debates over the limits of gun ownership and school security reach Capitol Hill.

In aggregate, the polls show support for key parts of President Obama's package of gun laws, but the NRA-backed proposal to increase security in schools is also popular.

Meanwhile, the differences in how the questions are worded are being mined by pollsters and political professionals as the fight over stricter gun laws moves to Congress. Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who has written extensively about polling on gun issues and is part of a bipartisan polling team for the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has lobbied for stricter gun laws, told National Journal that she sees movement for her side in the latest polls post-Newtown.

"I think all those numbers are really showing a big shift," she said. "In each outlet's version [of the question] there's been some movement."

But Omero and other advocates for the types of stricter gun laws the president has proposed have seen specific signs in public and private polling to help them frame their message. Her first piece of advice: Don't call it "gun control."

"We need to scrub the word 'control' from our language," said Omero. "It's just not a good descriptor, and it has a pejorative connotation."

Asked how advocates should refer to their efforts, Omero said, "The easy answer is 'stronger gun laws.' That's how we would talk about any other kind of law."

As for Republicans, as this week’s AP-GfK poll shows, framing the issue as one of Second Amendment rights, particularly with their supporters, is perhaps their most effective strategy.

"Republicans are best advised to talk about Second Amendment rights and freedom," said Republican consultant Curt Anderson.

But Democratic pollster John Anzalone warns that opposition to some of the specific proposals, framed the wrong way, could leave the GOP on the wrong side of public opinion. "The danger for Republican incumbents is going too far, where their statements are outside the mainstream," said Anzalone. "Quite frankly, even in Republican districts, a majority of voters support these measures."

A review of specific public polling questions shows the importance of these rhetorical distinctions. Some pollsters have asked a form of this question, from the most recent AP-GfK poll: "Should gun laws in the United States be made more strict, less strict, or remain as they are?" In both the AP-GfK poll, and a late December USA Today/Gallup poll, 58 percent of respondents said they thought these laws should be made more strict. A CNN/Time/ORC poll found that 55 percent "favor stricter gun laws," while 44 oppose them.

Another common question concerns Americans' priorities balancing laws that restrict gun ownership with Second Amendment rights. The most recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll asked respondents, "What do you think is more important — to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?" That poll found a slight majority, 51 percent, thought controlling gun ownership was more important, while 46 percent chose the right of Americans to own guns. (A Pew Research Center poll, conducted by the same survey firm, found similar results on this question.)

But a slight tweak of that question can affect the result. The AP/GfK poll asked, "Do you think that laws limiting gun ownership infringe on the public's right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or do you think they do not infringe on the public's right to bear arms?" In that poll, 51 percent said those laws would infringe on the right to bear arms, and 41 percent said they do not.

An even more significant difference is evident when Americans are asked about specific proposals. In the AP/GfK poll, 55 percent support "a nationwide ban on the sale of military-style, rapid-fire guns." The Congressional Connection Poll found only 46 percent support for "banning semiautomatic guns, which automatically reload when the trigger is pulled." On the other hand, Pew found that 58 percent favor "a ban on semiautomatic weapons," the same percentage that support "a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons" in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Gallup/USA Today asked respondents if they were "for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles," finding 44 percent in favor, and 51 percent against.

Anzalone noted some of this rhetorical massaging in president's proposals. "They specifically called them military-style assault weapons," he said.

"It's smart," said Anzalone. "These are weapons of soldiers, and not weapons of hunters."

Republicans also see school security as a helpful issue. The new CNN/Time/ORC poll shows that more Americans, 47 percent, think "proposals to put armed guards in every school in the country ... would do more to reduce the amount of gun violence in our nation's schools," while only 40 percent think "proposals to enact stricter gun laws" would do more.

"I think you'll see some Republicans begin to say, 'What happened [in Connecticut] was awful, even evil,' " said Anderson. "Now the question is [over] using the evil acts of a mentally deranged person a reason to take away the legal rights of law-abiding citizens."

Despite the strong poll numbers earned by armed guards in schools, proponents of stricter gun laws still see the data, on balance, as evidence that this represents their best opportunity to strengthen laws restricting firearms. Omero pointed to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, which showed 88 percent of Americans support "background checks on people buying guns at gun shows" (and a CBS News/New York Times poll released Thursday showed support for background checks on all prospective gun purchasers at an overwhelming 92 percent.)

"The needle has absolutely moved more than we've seen after past tragedies," said Omero. "It's a month out and these numbers continue to move toward stronger gun laws."