To beat the NRA, don’t focus on guns. Focus on keeping them away from dangerous people.
Photo by Pima County Sheriff's Forensic Unit via Getty Images
This weekend, a task force set up by President Obama after the Sandy Hook massacre will finalize its proposals to reduce gun violence. The deliberation involves some big strategic decisions. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg has one good piece of advice: Treat gun control as a health issue, not a moral issue. I have another: Target people, not guns.
For the most part, Americans don’t blame criminal shootings on firearms. They blame the shooters—a bunch of crooks and wackos regarded as wholly unrelated to normal gun owners—and whoever passed the weapons to them. That’s one reason why a New York newspaper’s map of homeowners with handgun permits provoked so much outrage: It implies that owning a firearm is presumptively creepy or dangerous. The gun lobby relies on this bias in public opinion and argues that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Every time some guy shoots up a school or mall, the National Rifle Association calls for more security and more prosecution of thugs.
These arguments work because, to begin with, gun owners are far more likely to vote based on this issue than gun-control sympathizers are. That skews the polling math. To convince politicians that it’s advantageous to embrace a gun restriction, you need more than majority support. You need something more like two-thirds support. Proposals to restrict the capacities of guns or ammunition (which I’ve endorsed) don’t get that kind of support. What gets that support are proposals to restrict who can buy firearms.
Look at media polls taken since Sandy Hook. In a Washington Post/ABC News survey, 52 percent of respondents supported a ban on semiautomatic handguns, and 59 percent favored a ban on high-capacity clips. Only 27 percent endorsed a general prohibition on handguns. A Pew Research Center poll got almost the same results: 56 percent of respondents favored a ban on armor-piercing bullets, and 53 percent supported a ban on high-capacity clips, while pluralities opposed a ban on semiautomatic guns (49 to 44 percent) or on handguns generally (67 to 28 percent).
But when the conversation turns to restrictions aimed at people, the numbers soar. In a CNN/ORC poll taken shortly after Sandy Hook, respondents opposed, by 52 to 48 percent, “limiting the number of guns an individual can own.” They endorsed bans on high-capacity clips and on “semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47,” by 62 to 37 percent. But when they were asked about background checks and denying guns to “certain people, such as convicted felons or people with mental health problems,” the support numbers shot up above 90 percent.
Gallup finds the same pattern. Even after Sandy Hook, its respondents opposed a ban on handguns by a record margin, 74 to 24 percent. They opposed a ban on “semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles,” 51 to 44 percent. They favored a ban on high-capacity clips, 62 to 35 percent. But again, the support numbers jumped above 90 percent when they were asked about mandatory background checks at gun shows. The results of a survey taken by Public Policy Polling for Daily Kos are almost identical.
Gun-control groups don’t advertise this gap, but their polls reflect it. Three years ago, the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence commissioned a survey by Lake Research Partners. “A majority of Americans oppose people carrying loaded guns openly in public,” said the press release. But the fine print showed that only 52 percent backed this proposal, and even the released survey report didn’t divulge the question. Mayors Against Illegal Guns gets better poll numbers because the questions it asks and its reports focus on who should be disqualified from access to firearms, not on gun owners or carriers in general. Look at the data it released six months ago:
74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun. 79 percent of NRA members and 80 percent of non-NRA gun owners support requiring gun retailers to perform background checks on all employees … 75 percent of NRA members believe concealed carry permits should only be granted to applicants who have not committed any violent misdemeanors, including assault. … 68 percent of NRA members believe permits should only be granted to applicants who do not have prior arrests for domestic violence. … The NRA rank and file also supports barring people on terror watch lists from buying guns (71 percent) …
When MAIG surveyed Americans after the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shooting, 58 percent endorsed a ban on high-capacity magazines. The group didn’t even mention that finding in its press release. Instead, it highlighted proposals for background checks and data coordination to prevent terrorists, drug abusers, and mentally ill people from buying guns, all of which scored above 85 percent.
The NRA knows these ideas target its weakness. On Thursday, after its meeting with the White House task force, the organization issued a statement alleging that the task force “spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners—honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans. … We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.”
Fine, then. Let’s talk about how to keep guns away from the criminals and madmen. You NRA boys don’t have a problem with that, do you?
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.