Public Opinion and Gun Control: A Paradox - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Public Opinion and Gun Control: A Paradox

As the above chart illustrates, support for stricter gun laws declined from 78% in 1990 to 44% in 2009, with peaks and valleys in between. On January 8, 2011, then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was severely injured in a mass shooting that took six lives. But Gallup found public opinion unchanged in October 2011. Even when it has enjoyed majority support, gun control expansion has only been viable in the political climate immediately following events like the assassination attempt on President Reagan and mass shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech. On July 20, 2012 a gunman set off tear gas grenades in a movie theater and sprayed the audience with bullets, killing 12 and injuring 58 before his 100-round drum magazine jammed. This established a pattern on mass shootings

Mass shootings were and are rare, though 2012 was a particularly bad year, with roughly 151 deaths. Sandy Hook marked a turning point. The December 14 massacre of seven women and 20 infant children by a suicidal gunman traumatized the nation. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted between December 19 and 22 found that 58% of Americans supported stricter gun laws.

The shift waned slightly by early April 2013. Gun control advocates’ optimism for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) stricter, permanent assault weapons ban gave way to a tough fight over background checks, which had previously been considered fertile ground for bipartisan action. Paradoxically, expansion of background checks has overwhelming public support. A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters between March 26 and April 1 found 91% would require background checks on all gun buyers (margin of error ± 2.4). A CNN/ORC poll of adults nationwide between April 5 and 7 (margin of error ± 3) found support ranging from 70% to 89% for background checks in various types of sales that are currently exempt, and 54% for checks between family members. 51% supported banning assault weapons like the AR-15. However, the same poll found only 53% favored stricter gun control laws. Likewise, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (margin of error ± 3.1) between April 5 and 8 asked, “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?” 55% indicated “more strict,”

This puzzle reminds of the conjunction fallacy:

The most often-cited example of this fallacy originated with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:[2]

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.

  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

90% of those asked chose option 2. However the probability of two events occurring together (in “conjunction”) is always less than or equal to the probability of either one occurring alone.

The human brain has difficulty consistently evaluating a proposition if it is framed in a variety of ways. General questions are ironically open to specific, personal interpretation. Perhaps the respondent is more apt to envision restrictions he or she opposes. The BBC’s Yes, Prime Minister wonderfully satirized opinion polling in this classic scene (famous enough, that it is probably the only reason I am personally aware the series existed):

The scene’s humorous exaggeration aside, my best guess is that leading questions take advantage of the same cognitive biases and limitations that cause almost half of those who ostensibly favor expanded background checks to oppose stricter gun control laws. Differing interpretations of what constitutes gun control may hold the answer, but I am willing to bet that the percentages would shift dramatically if the questions were asked in a different order.

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