On the train this morning I read a sincerely opinion piece from a Marine officer on the need for more gun control. After offering up the mandatory personal vignette — in the author’s case about he learned the power and lethality of military rifles — he makes a populist plea for tighter gun laws. He cites a January 17th CBS News-New York Times poll showing that a majority of Americans want more gun control and that strong majorities want certain specific changes to gun laws such as background checks on private gun sales.
The problem is gun policy isn’t simply a matter of who’s up and who’s down in the polls. Indeed, Gallup found on January 14th that 48% of Americans were either satisfied with existing laws or wanted a loosening of them, compared to 38% who would prefer tighter laws. On January 17th Rasmussen found that 57% feel it is more important to enforce existing gun laws than create new ones, with only 32% prioritizing the creation of new legislation. And then at the other end we have recent Pew polling that tracks more closely with the CBS News-New York Times poll, finding that 58% favored banning semiautomatic weapons and 85% support background checks on private sales.
So what does all this mean? Not much in my view. I write this for three reasons:
1) Most Americans have no idea what the hell they are talking about when it comes to current affairs. I would be shocked to find that a majority of Americans even know what a semi-automatic weapon is, let alone that they can articulate a defensible reason why that category of weapons should be banned. Face it, we live in a country where people are largely ignorant of current affairs, particularly when there is a technical or scientific element to the problem. Even those who are “informed” often just regurgitate whatever the conventional wisdom is on an issue. Critical thinking, never in abundance in the best of times, is ever more rare.
2) Most polls don’t come close to telling the whole story. For example, there is a profound enthusiasm gap benefiting those of us who support gun rights allowing us to punch above our weight. You can feel it at a gun rights rally and you can see it in recent polling that looks specifically at the issue of which side in the debate is most involved. So even if the average, uninformed, and disinterested American leans toward gun control for the moment, we have many more people willing to act in support of their beliefs.
3) Polls change from week to week, a reflection of a fickle public and adjustments in how questions are posed. I don’t mean to suggest polls are pointless or always politically biased (that attitude led to a lot of unfounded optimism among Romney supporters on the eve of last year’s election) but that they are what they are: a snapshot in time.