AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Polling is an art as well as a science, as any good campaign consultant can tell you. Frank Newport, a senior scientist at Gallup, has a new analysis of polling on “assault weapons” bans that demonstrates how polls are worded can make a big difference in support or disapproval for various measures.

Newport believes that the wording of some polling questions on “assault weapons” bans may simply confuse respondents.

The overall results of these experiments confirm that asking Americans if they are “for or against a law which would make it illegal to sell or possess assault rifles” produces a lower level of support than asking them about such actions using a specific reference to a “ban” or by simplifying wording to ask directly about making ownership or manufacture of assault weapons illegal. It may be that the first wording is confusing to some respondents, particularly for those with less formal education. The use of more direct wording points to the conclusion evident from the preponderance of other research conducted in 2018 and 2019 — that a majority of Americans support a ban on assault weapons at this time.

According to Newports analysis of various polls, he believes roughly 60% of Americans are in favor of a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic rifles deemed to be “assault weapons.” Given the demonization of the firearms in question, that honestly wouldn’t surprise me. It’s worth noting, however, that according to Newport’s own analysis, support for a ban rises the more scary buzz words are used. He asked three variations on the question of banning so-called assault weapons, and got three very different results.

For law / Should be illegalAgainst law / Should be legal
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“2004” wording: Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles? (N=830)4849
Modification 1: Do you think it should be legal or illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles? (N=825)5741
Modification 2: Do you think it should be legal or illegal to manufacture, sell or possess high-capacity semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15, AK-47 or M16? (N=776)6236

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find the wording of the first question to be particularly difficult to understand. Yet, there’s undeniably a stark difference in the answers to Question 1 and Question 2, even though the second question is just a little shorter and easier to follow. There’s also an undeniable difference in the answers to the second and third question, which ups the rhetorical ante by calling the guns “high-capacity” and specifically referring to AR-15’s, AK-47’s, and M16’s (which are not semi-automatic firearms at all). The scarier the description, the higher the support.

It’s really too bad polling rarely asks open ended questions, because I would love to ask a few follow-ups to those who supported a ban, regardless of the wording.

  • How do you propose to get the guns from the millions of Americans who own them?
  • Would you prefer prison time or a fine for those who violate the law?
  • No, really, what do you want to do when people don’t hand over their guns?
  • How often do you think these guns are used in crimes?
  • Do you believe banning something gets rid of it?
  • Do you think there might be a better way of stopping active assailant attacks than trying to take tens of millions of guns from millions of Americans?

Sadly, I don’t think we’ll see any of those questions asked by pollsters any time soon, but there’s no reason we can’t ask a variation of those questions when we find ourselves involved in a debate over gun control. I have my constitutional concerns about any sweeping gun ban, but I also acknowledge that my ideological opponents have no problem with ignoring the Second Amendment or deciding that confiscating firearms from millions of people is somehow not an infringement on their rights. If I’m hoping to persuade them, and not just call them names, I need to try to find another approach. Since they don’t give a damn about the constitutional considerations, what about the practical matter of enforcing this law?

Forget the pie-in-the-sky talk from politicians about how people will simply obey this law, or those who can’t even tell you what the punishment would be for violating their gun ban. Let’s have a real discussion about how this would be implemented, and whether or not it would work. Even if someone thinks AR-15’s are the Devil’s Boomstick and should all be melted down to make metal straws, you might still be able to convince them of the folly of trying to do so, especially when there are much more effective ways to stop active assailants and actually address public safety.

We can shout “Shall Not Be Infringed” and “I Will Not Comply” until we’re blue in the face, but I think we owe it to ourselves and our rights to save a little breath for a more persuasive argument as well. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, there’s a case to be made against gun control and gun bans specifically in favor of better (and more constitutionally sound) policies to address violent crime, suicide, domestic violence, and even active assailant attacks. In fact, I’d love to hear your best non-traditional argument against gun control. You can email me at [email protected] with your ideas, and I’ll share a few in an upcoming post.