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Polls: Anti-Gun Propaganda By David Kopel

Wednesday, September 13, 2000

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Anti-gun pollsters can, and do, design poll questions to get a pre-determined result. Surprised? Look at how these pollsters manipulate poll questions to feed the anti-gunners propaganda machine.

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Among the greatest assets of the American gun prohibition movement are certain professional pollsters. While citizen mail to elected officials is overwhelmingly pro-rights, pollsters often do an excellent job of convincing elected officials that "the public" favors repressive gun control. But in truth, many polls are little more than thinly-disguised propaganda for the anti-gun lobby.

One of the most common distortions in polls involves the wording of the question.

Questions about "assault weapons" are especially prone to misleading phrasing. As the Defense Intelligence Agency states, an "assault rifle" is a portable automatic rifle that fires a cartridge of intermediate power. When asked about "assault weapon" laws, many Americans think that they are answering a question about fully-automatic firearms, even though "assault weapon" laws apply exclusively to semi-automatics.

The deliberately confusing nature of the term "assault weapon" is compounded when pollsters such as Gallup asking about banning guns "such as the AK-47." The AK-47, of course, is a fully-automatic Communist combat rifle. Hardly any AK-47`s can be found inside the United States, outside of private collections and museums. But questions about the "AK-47" trick poll respondents into saying "yes" to the gun ban question.

Handgun Control, Inc., likes to cite a survey conducted by the Texas Poll, which purportedly showed that even in pro-gun Texas, "assault weapon" controls were popular. But the Texas Poll was a model of distorted question framing. One question asked if sale of "assault weapons remains legal, should there be a mandatory seven-day waiting period to purchase a high-caliber, fast-firing assault rifle?"

Ever since 1934, there has been not a "seven-day waiting period," but a six month transfer application period for true assault rifles (since true "assault rifles" are fully-automatic firearms, and are covered by the National Firearms Act of 1934). Thus, the Texas Poll found 89% of Texans in favor of something far less strict than the existing federal law&endash;one that had been in place for over half a century. Yet the Texas Poll was used to promote prohibition of semi-automatics&endash;which the question had not even asked about.

Further, the Texas Poll incorrectly described the guns as "high caliber." In contrast, the DIA definition of "assault rifle" includes only guns that fire intermediate-power cartridges (such as, for example, the .223 Remington cartridge). Semi-automatics which look like true assault rifles are similarly chambered. In comparison, many guns used for big game hunting fire larger calibers, such as the .378 Weatherby Magnum. Most people believe that larger cartridges are more deadly, and medical research supports this intuition.

Thus, it would be expected that persons asked a question about controls on "high caliber" guns in particular would be more supportive of controls than they might be about gun control in general. The results from the "high caliber" gun question were touted in legislatures to promote laws that banned guns not based on caliber, but based on appearances.

Another example of an argumentative gun control polling question was from a Gallup query about waiting periods, which was posed in a way that assumed a waiting period really would help the police keep guns away from illegitimate owners: "Would you favor or oppose a national law requiring a seven-day waiting period before a handgun could be purchased, in order to determine whether the prospective buyer has been convicted of a felony or is mentally ill?"

Contrary to Gallup`s hypothesis, even many criminologists who favor gun control have concluded that criminal and mental records are frequently not accurate enough to allow the police "to determine whether the prospective buyer has been convicted of a felony or is mentally ill." Nor are mental health records generally available, as Gallup misleadingly suggests.

Indeed, much of the debate in Congress over a waiting period focused on whether state criminal records were good enough for a waiting period to be implemented right away, or whether it would be better to first spend several years improving the quality of existing records. Gallup, however, told his respondents to assume the very point that was at the heart of the controversy. One of the most central disputed facts having been assumed away, it was not surprising that Gallup found a huge majority in favor of a waiting period.


Brady Bill


Gallup, like virtually every other pollster who asked about the Brady Bill, made sure to ask just a straight "yes/no" question about the bill. Gallup never asked Americans about the NRA`s alternative to the Brady Bill, the instant criminal records check. (Given the state of current records, an immediate telephone check is just as accurate as a week-long check.) The few polls which did offer the instant check alternative found that the public overwhelming preferred the instant check to the Brady Bill.



The Right to Carry

Sometimes a question itself may be neutral, but the meaning of the question may be twisted by the pollster. For example, in 1975 Gallup asked Americans: "In Massachusetts a law requires that a person who carries a gun outside his home must have a license to do so. Would you approve or disapprove of having such a law in your state?" Seventy-seven percent approved of such a law in their state.

The result was to be expected, for the vast majority of Americans as of 1975 lived in a state that has similar legislation. Requiring a permit for carry outside the home was not unique to Massachusetts. Over three-quarters of the states required either a permit to carry a gun or a permit to carry a concealed gun. Indeed, supporters of "shall issue" concealed handgun laws could easily tell Gallup that they supported a licensing law.

Yet Gallup did not announce "Most People Support Existing Gun Carry Laws," even though that was all his survey had shown. What Gallup claimed in his article was that the public supported "a specific plan...based on a law now in effect in Massachusetts." Gallup explained that the then-new Bartley Fox law in Massachusetts requires that "Anyone who is convicted of carrying a gun without a license is given a mandatory sentence of one year in jail."

The one year mandatory sentence was, of course, precisely what made the Massachusetts law different from every other state`s. Gallup claimed that the American public supported the stern mandatory sentencing law; but Gallup had never asked them about it. Gallup`s actual question merely mentioned the (ubiquitous) permit to carry provision and omitted the (controversial) mandatory sentence provision.

When people are asked distorted questions by anti-gun pollsters, anti-gun "results" are common. But when people are given open-ended questions about what they think an effective solution to crime would be, four percent or fewer mention gun control.

Flawed as the Gallup Poll can sometimes be, it is a model of scholarly rectitude compared to the products of Lou Harris. In July, 1993, LH (Lou Harris) Research released a poll which became a treasure-trove of factoids for anti-gun politicians such as Colorado Governor Roy Romer. The poll reported that among American schoolchildren in grades six through twelve, eleven percent had been shot at with a gun in the last year, and nine percent had shot a gun at someone else.

The results were preposterous. The National Crime Victimization Survey (conducted by the Bureau of the Census) provides thorough national data regarding victimization for all types of violent crimes. If the NCVS data are accurate, the LH figures exaggerated by at least fifty times the number of youths who have been shot at, and the number of youths who had shot at someone else. Given the NCVS data, as well as the medical data about the number of gunshot wounds reported each year, the youth of modern America would have to be by far the worst shooters since the invention of gunpowder if a full nine percent of them had actually shot a gun at someone.

How could the Lou Harris poll be so wrong? Part of the problem was that the LH report did not specify which schools were surveyed, so the students polled may have been concentrated in high-crime schools, rather than being a true national sample.

Most importantly, the questionnaire could hardly have been better designed to produce what pollsters call "response-set bias." Before getting to the questions about personal experience with guns and crime, the student respondents were warmed up with twelve questions which made it clear that the pollsters thought that youth firearms crime was an immense national problem. It is well-established that for all types of opinion surveys, respondents often attempt to tell surveyors what the respondents think the surveyors want to hear. The Harris student surveys were administered by teachers in a classroom setting, which could not help but amplify the desire of the respondents (the students) to tell the adults what the adults obviously wanted to hear.

Indeed, Lou Harris is quite accomplished at warming up polling subjects in order to produce a desired result. A 1993 Lou Harris poll opened with a long parade of "questions" designed to illustrate the horrors of gun ownership. Respondents were presented with "facts" such as "In 1988, one in every six pediatricians treated a young person who was the victim of a gunshot wound." The respondents were then asked if such facts made them feel more urgently about the problems of guns and children. After the battery of advocacy, respondents were then asked if they supported the Brady Bill, and 89 percent said yes.

Harris promptly claimed to have found a "sea-change in public attitudes" in favor of gun control. Nobody in the media noticed that Harris had claimed to have found the same thing in 1975, when he told a Senate committee: "There is as clear a national mandate for this committee, for the House, and for the Senate as any you have ever had...I think we will see in 1976, if someone takes national leadership on the gun control issue, you will see some casualties on the other side, that those who dared to oppose gun control will be casualties as opposed to those who dared to stand up for gun control being casualties. That is how radically, I think, the American people are changing."1



The NRA

In March, 1994, Harris topped himself. At a speech in Key West, Florida, Harris guaranteed that handguns would be outlawed in two to three years. "Mark my word," he said, "and hold me to it."

Harris went on to announce that the passage of the Brady Bill had broken the back of the National Rifle Association. 2

Well, not quite. In November, 1994, the National Rifle Association swept out of office scores of anti-gun politicians. Outraged by the attacks on the Constitution from politically correct disinformation specialists like Lou Harris, gun owners all over the country got to work supporting the Second Amendment. And thanks to the hard work of these gun owners, the type of gun law that swept the country in 1995 and 1996 wasn`t handgun prohibition. It was legislation allowing citizens to carry handguns for protection.


1994 Elections


When people are asked distorted questions by anti-gun pollsters, anti-gun "results" are common. But when people are given open-ended questions about what they think an effective solution to crime would be, four percent or fewer mention gun control.

Ironically, the greatest victims of anti-gun polling are often anti-gun politicians and lobbyists. In August, 1994, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley went to the White House and warned President Clinton that voting for a crime bill containing an "assault weapon" ban would hurt Democrats all over the country.

President Clinton`s pollster Stanley Greenberg disagreed. He produced data which he said showed that not a single Democrat would lose his seat over the "assault weapon" ban.

But on election night [in Washington state], Handgun Control, Inc., found itself nationally humiliated when the licensing law was rejected by an overwhelming 71% of the voters.

A few weeks after the November, 1994, elections, President Clinton admitted to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that "the fight for the assault-weapons ban cost 20 members their seats in Congress...The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the house." 3 Washington pundits attributed the defeat of many prominent Democrats, such as House Speaker Foley and Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, to a voter backlash against gun control in general, and the "assault weapon" ban in particular.


Washington State


More recently, in Washington state, early polling convinced the anti-gun lobbies that they could get voters to enact one of the strictest gun licensing statutes in the country by labeling it a "gun safety" law which must be enacted "for the children." As the election came near, pollsters reported that the vote in Initiative 676 was too close to call. Relying on the polls, the antis worked hard and successfully to draw major national media attention to Washington state, for what was supposed to be the starting point for national handgun licensing.

But on election night, Handgun Control, Inc., found itself nationally humiliated when the licensing law was rejected by an overwhelming 71% of the voters. Every county and every demographic group voted against the proposed law. Mrs. Brady was reduced to making the absurd claim that NRA advertising had won the election with "accusations that I.676 supporters had Satanic connections."

As Washington`s 80,000 conscientious NRA members demonstrated, the most effective antidote to anti-gun polling is the work of pro-rights activists to inform their friends and neighbors about the public safety benefits of firearms, and the dangers of the unreasonable laws pushed by the gun-ban lobbies.

Some examples in this article are from, "Sorry, Wrong Number: Why Media Polls on Gun Control are so Often Unreliable," by D. Kopel and G. Mauser (1992 Political Communication, vol. 9, pp. 69-92); a shorter version was reprinted in 6 J. on Firearms and Public Policy (1994); see http://www.saf.org/pub/ rkba/books/jfpp6.txt.



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1 Testimony of Louis Harris, Public Opinion Pollster, Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations at Hearings on Presidential Protection, Oct. 24, 1975, reprinted in "Handgun Crime Control 1975-1976," Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Comm. on the Judiciary of the Senate, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., Vol. I, pp. 800 & 803.

2 "Pollster Predicts U.S. Ban on Handguns," Associated Press, Key West, Fl, 3/1/94, 1:06 p.m.

3 Evelyn Theiss, "Clinton Blames Losses on NRA," Plain-Dealer, Jan. 14, 1995, p. A1.

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