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Friday, December 11, 2009

Understanding the Latest Anti-Gun "Poll"

This week, anti-gun New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, released the findings of a poll conducted by a political consulting firm called "The Word Doctors," whose slogan is "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."  Word Doctors' president is a pollster who has been reprimanded by the American Association for Public Opinion Research and censured by the National Council on Public Polls, and who says that the key to polling is "to ask a question in the way that you get the right answer." 

At some other time in our nation's history, an organization like this would not have been commissioned to conduct a poll, and perhaps it would not even have existed. At a minimum, its poll would have been considered biased and rejected by every newspaper in the country. 

But today, as the distinction between editorials and news has become blurred, information is treated so superficially that a catchy word or two is enough to get someone elected to public office, and some in positions of authority cannot conceive of the concept of shame. 

Thus, earlier this week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) excitedly called attention to the bought-and-paid-for Word Doctors "poll," which claimed that a majority of NRA members and other gun owners support Lautenberg's bills to prohibit the possession of firearms by people placed (often mistakenly) on the FBI terrorist watchlist (S.1317), to require gun show promoters to send ledgers of customer information to the federal government (S.843), and to let the FBI retain records for 180 days of every gun purchase approved by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)  (S.2820).  The poll also claimed support for Bloomberg's proposal to rescind the Tiahrt Amendment, which prevents unfettered release of BATFE firearm trace data.  (Bloomberg, of course, wants to use the data in lawsuits against the firearms industry.) 

But did the poll really show such strong support?  Certainly the participants didn't have much information to go on.  The poll didn't explain that the watchlist has been under fire by the Department of Justice's Inspector General's office and the ACLU for improperly including the names of innocent people, and that many innocent people have been mistaken for those who are on the watchlist. It didn't explain that Lautenberg's gun show bill would do much more than require NICS checks on private gun sales at gun shows. 

The poll mischaracterized the issue of NICS record retention. Instead of informing poll participants that the accused Ft. Hood murderer had been investigated by the FBI and found to not constitute a terror threat months before he went through a NICS check to purchase the gun he allegedly used in the murders, the poll simply asked whether "the FBI should be able to access and keep information about gun purchases by terror suspects in cases similar to [the accused Ft. Hood killer's]?" Worse, Word Doctors misinformed poll participants by telling them that the accused killer was still under investigation at the time he purchased the gun. 

The poll also asked if participants agreed that "The federal government should not restrict the police's ability to access, use, and share data that helps them enforce federal, state and local gun laws," when in fact the Tiahrt Amendment fully allows access to trace information, as long as it's related to crimes that they're actually investigating. 

And the poll also claimed that a majority of gun owners want to "balance" their rights against the need to stop criminals from getting guns. But what it actually asked was whether gun owners agreed that "We can do more to stop criminals from getting guns while also protecting the rights of citizens to freely own them." Coupled with the poll's findings that an overwhelming majority of gun owners believe "Criminals . . . should be punished to the maximum extent of the law" and "Law-abiding Americans should have the freedom to choose how to protect themselves, based on their personal situation," it's fair to conclude that gun owners understand the two concepts aren't mutually exclusive.  Since the ideas are compatible, they don't require a "balance," as suggested by gun control supporters. 

Notably, Lautenberg mentioned none of the poll's findings that undercut the anti-gun agenda, and Dionne mentioned few. These include findings that an overwhelming majority of gun owners:

  • Thinks President Obama will try to ban guns;
  • Agrees that the Supreme Court's decision in last year's Heller case was correct;
  • Agrees that the Second Amendment should prevent all levels of government from infringing the right to arms;
  • Agrees that people should be allowed to carry guns for protection in national parks;
  • Agrees that people should be allowed to transport firearms in baggage on Amtrak trains;
  • Agrees that gun laws should be less strict or left as they are; and
  • Opposes or is neutral about gun registration and an "assault weapon" ban. 
One final note: Since Word Doctors had no access to NRA membership lists, there's no way the pollsters could verify that any of the "NRA members" actually were NRA members.  While this is a fatal flaw, we mention it at the end only because the poll's other flaws were even worse.
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