A new study conducted by researchers at Yale University and covered in The Trace appears to confirm a truism in how people develop and hold opinions, namely, the more you want to believe in something, the more you can make yourself believe in something. In this case, the issue is guns, and what two Yale researchers discovered in a survey of 1,384 people, is that people who support stronger gun-control laws also know that background checks are not conducted on all gun transfers, whereas people who are less inclined to support less gun-control laws believe that universal background checks are already in place. In other words, if you believe there is a gun “problem” and you further believe that new laws could help solve the problem, you will be in favor of more laws. And to quote an old Spanish saying: If not, not.
I have two issues with this survey, but I want it understood that I am not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater; I’m just trying to make the bathwater a bit more warm. To begin, I am always somewhat suspect of public surveys about guns if the survey purports to reflect the views of a ‘representative’ group of Americans without distinguishing whether this particular group includes gun owners or not. Because on any issue related to guns, these folks are going to have plenty to say, particularly if they happen to be among the minority if gun owners who really do ‘cling’ to their guns because it’s a lifestyle and a hobby that is very important to them. They are not necessarily the majority of gun owners and it certainly isn’t a majority of Americans, but it may be a majority in certain gun-rich states and it’s for sure just about everyone who turns out when a new gun law comes up for debate.
In this respect the Yale researchers ask the following question: “Could it be that public misperceptions of existing gun control laws also contribute to the absence of public mobilization for new legislation?” Let me break it gently to our GVP colleagues from Yale – the folks who are against new gun laws never have any trouble mobilizing for a public debate, whether they know anything about the law in question or not. It’s the 89% of respondents to this survey who both know there are no universal background checks and want an expansion of gun-control laws who usually don’t show up.
The authors focused this survey on questions about background checks because, according to them, “universal background checks for gun purchases could substantially reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the USA.” They cite two well-known studies to bolster this statement, but that’s not what either study actually says. The research by Eric Fleelger and his group correlates gun fatalities with the presence or absence of gun laws in every state, but background checks are just one of 17 different legal procedures that are used to monitor public traffic of guns. As for the study by Daniel Webster, et. al., on the effect of the repeal of Missouri’s handgun-purchase law, a permit-to-purchase procedure conducted at the state level is, by definition, a much more rigorous method for weeding out unqualified handgun purchasers than a 60-second conversation between a gun shop owner and an FBI staffer at NICS.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying or implying that the problem of gun violence can be effectively addressed without additional laws. I am also not saying that researching the effect of gun-control laws with an eye towards making those laws more effective shouldn’t be done. But what I am saying is that if we believe in public policy as a mechanism for change, then the question we really have to ask is not whether folks understand the ins and outs of specific policies, but whether they are willing to come out and show themselves when a public policy is being addressed. Perhaps that’s the question which should have been asked.