Want To Invent Facts About Gun Violence? Conduct A Survey.

Now that the boys from Fairfax have decided to give Ollie North an opportunity to keep the discussion about gun violence at a level of religious righteousness that precludes the slightest degree of reality entering into the debate from their side, our friends at The Washington Post have decided to create their own version of reality by publishing the results of a national survey which finds that a majority of Americans believe that more people own guns than actually do own guns.

surveys             The Post claims that a ‘representative sample’ of more than 2,000 adults were asked the following question: “Out of every 100 people in the U.S., about how many do you think own a gun?” And the average answer was: 43 percent.  The Post claims that this is a much higher number than either ‘gun-rights’ or ‘gun-control’ groups are willing to accept, although their source for the numeric favored by Gun-nut Nation happens to be Gallup which puts the gun-owning percentage right at 42%.

Trying to figure out how many Americans own guns is a game which has been played since the 1970’s, particularly following the first, major federal gun law passed in 1968. It was this law, GCA68, which ignited the public discussion about guns and spawned a cottage industry of survey-takers who have been trying ever since to figure out how many Americans own guns. Sometimes the surveys asks whether a gun is found within a particular residence, other times whether a particular individual within the residence owns a gun, sometimes the survey requests information on both.

When these surveys first started being published, there was a big hue and cry from the Gun-nut side that the numbers understated ownership because people were afraid to state in public that they owned guns. The funny thing is that when such cautions were raised about the truthfulness of gun-ownership answers, most surveys set the percentage of gun-owning families at 50% or more. Of late, nobody seems terribly concerned about disclosing the presence of guns, even though the gun-owning number has dropped to 40% or less.

Although the gun-rights and the gun-control groups still differ about how many guns and how many gun owners are floating around, what I find interesting is that both sides come down in lockstep on one basic point, namely, that what we believe to be the real number is presumed to represent only guns that are legally owned.  After all, if a legal gun owner might be reluctant to publicly disclose his access to guns, someone who has an illegal gun lying around for sure isn’t about to spill the goods.

This might sound like a rather radical thing to say, but I have never felt comfortable with the distinction between ‘legal’ as opposed to ‘illegal’ guns. The implication is that people who own guns legally are somehow more responsible, whereas illegal gun owners are irresponsible or worse. After all, the definition of ‘responsible’ usually means that someone doesn’t break the law, so, by definition, anyone with an ‘illegal’ gun is already a law-breaker before he does anything good, bad or otherwise with the gun. Which allows the NRA to always refer to its members as ‘law-abiding’ gun owners, but also lets the GVP opposition chase after ‘responsible’ gun owners who will support ‘reasonable’ laws.

The NRA which prides itself on only attracting law-abiding citizens to its ranks is the same NRA that tells its members that the government has no right to determine whether they are, in fact, a law-abiding citizen when they attempt to buy a gun. By the same token, the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement is reluctant to go headlong against the ‘law-abiding’ argument because most of the people who allegedly own ‘illegal’ guns happen to be members of minority communities and the last thing the GVP wants is remind its constituency that a majority of the individuals who commit gun violence also happen to be from one of the minority groups.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter what the Washington Post survey found because the narratives used by both sides in the debate about gun violence have little to do with the truth.

 

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Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

If I had a nickel for every gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate and/or gun violence researchers who believes that the American public is not so polarized about controlling guns, I would be somewhere at my golf club and not sitting in my office writing, doing emails, answering the phone and doing all the things I do in order to keep my checkbook occasionally in balance. And this GVP belief in the ability to work with the ‘other side’ stems primarily from endless surveys which show that even gun owners and/or Republicans (usually the same thing) support comprehensive background checks.

polls2             The latest pronouncement in this respect comes from one of our leading gun researchers, Garen Wintemute, who is now overseeing a $5 million grant from the State of California to fund research that has been left undone since the CDC stopped funding gun violence research back in 1998. As ‘proof’ that we are not so divided over the issue of background checks, I quote Wintemute from a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times: “90% of the general population supports (background checks for all firearms purchases), 80% of gun owners support it and 70% of self-reported NRA members support it. Things are not as polarized as they seem.”

I’m assuming that Wintemute took these numbers from the Pew poll published back in June which found, among other things, that 19% of all gun owners were members of the NRA. If this were true, the $165 million they pulled in from dues in 2015 would be chump change compared to what they would really rack if the 19% ‘NRA members’ were paying annual dues. Try about $250 million, okay?

But since the Pew researchers made no effort to ask people why they said they were members of America’s oldest civil rights organization, for the moment let’s accept the number as true even if it’s not. Here’s a bigger truth. The NRA has come out officially and publicly against any expansion of background checks. Period. No compromise whatsoever. So what the Pew researchers should have asked, and perhaps one of Wintemute’s research colleagues will get around to asking at some point is this: ‘If you favor background checks, would you drop your NRA membership because the organization is opposed to background checks?’  Or perhaps instead of that question, the researchers would ask something along the lines like this: ‘Would you vote for someone whose stance on issues included expanding background checks?’

Remember a political candidate named Hillary Clinton? She used a very strong GVP argument to knock Bernie out of the box. The only problem is that the same argument didn’t work in the general election worth a damn. I’m not saying that Trump won the election only because of his stance on 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ What I am saying is that asking the average person if they favor expanded background checks doesn’t really tell you very much about how that individual will really line up and be counted when a new gun law is being debated in the jurisdiction where that individual happens to live.

I’m also not saying that gun owners are ignorant of the importance of background checks for the transfer a gun from one set of hands to another set of hands. Nor am I saying they are lying when they tell a survey-taker that they support expanded background checks. But asking someone to respond to a specific question about guns doesn’t really tell you how the answer to that question lines up with other thoughts the same person holds about guns and how best to use public policies to diminish the violence caused by guns.

The same gun owners who told Pew they favored comprehensive background checks also said they wanted teachers to carry guns in schools and in case you don’t remember, arming teachers was the NRA’s response following the massacre at Sandy Hook.

If only the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could be measured by responses to a single question in a poll.

Why Do Americans Like Guns?

When I was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s, my two favorite places to visit was the NRA Museum and the FBI.  I loved looking at all the old and historic guns at NRA headquarters because I was a gun-nut by the age of five, and I loved the FBI tour because the last stop was at the shooting range where one of the agents would fire a 45-caliber tommy gun and I could take home the empty brass.

sales             The funny thing about those childhood experiences, however, was they took place at a time when Americans had much more positive views on the importance of regulating guns than we have today. Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the gun surveys conducted by Gallup, several of which started when I was a kid. For example, Gallup has been asking this question since 1959: “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?” In 1959 this question was answered affirmatively by 60% of the respondents; the last time this question was asked, in October, 2016, affirmative responses dropped to 23 percent.

Here’s how the views on another hot-button gun issue have changed, the question being asked: “Would you vote for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles?” In other words, how do Gallup respondents feel about an assault rifle ban?  In 1996, the first time this question was asked, 57% said they favored such a ban, last year the pro-ban percentage was 36 percent.

Finally, in 1993 Gallup asked respondents for the first time about whether guns made them safe: “Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a [safer place to be] or [a more dangerous place to be]?” The first time this question was asked in 1993, guns making a home safer got 42% of the responses, the last time it was asked in 2014, the ‘safe’ vote was up to 63%. Taking these three questions together, the pro-gun views on handgun ownership, assault weapons and guns for safety have all become more positive by at least half.

It would be easy to put this shift down to one of two arguments: 1) the country is becoming more conservative; 2) the NRA is doing a great PR job about guns. Unfortunately, both arguments can easily be shot through (pardon the pun) with holes. The country is becoming so much more conservative over the time-period covered by these surveys that abortion is law of the land, ditto gay marriage even in the most pro-gun states. As for the vaunted NRA noise machine, the percentage of Gallup respondents who always agree with the NRA on gun issues has stayed exactly the same from 1996 to 2012 – a whole, big 6%.

Our friend Mark Glaze was recently dragged over the coals by the NRA which discovered a survey that his ‘radical’ group, Guns Down, published after the shooting of Steve Scalise. The survey showed firm majorities for more gun control and less guns in circulation, so obviously any public opinion polling, including Gallup’ surveys, has to be treated with care. But the value of the Gallup polls is they ask the same questions year after year and no matter how you slice it or dice it, the message seems to be that Americans aren’t afraid of guns.

Most people are a lot more afraid of things they believe guns can be used to protect them against – crime, terrorism, danger in a generic sense – I don’t know anyone who can’t tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. And as long as we continue to believe that the world has become a more dangerous place, simply giving folks the results of a gun survey won’t persuade them to agree with what the survey says.

 

How Many Members In The NRA? Depends Who’s Talking.

When the Pew Research Center released a detailed report on U.S. gun owners, I knew it wouldn’t be long until the organization which claims to represent all gun owners – the NRA – responded in kind. And the response appeared on the NRA-ILA website which tried to explain how and why Pew’s estimate that the NRA has 14 million members may have been wrong but was actually right.

NRA building             What Pew did was ask its survey panel, which they claim to be representative of a cross-section of Americans, to indicate whether or not they were members of the NRA. And then extrapolating the ‘yes’ answers against the percentage of Americans which Pew claims own guns, you wind up with 14 million people who say they have joined America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization,’ as the boys in Fairfax like to say.

Now since the NRA itself claims only to have 5 million members, how do we explain that all of a sudden the organization has added 9 million more to its membership rolls? Here’s how the NRA is handling it as of today: “we have millions more Americans who support us and will tell pollsters they are members, even when they are not.” And to underscore this point, the NRA website also linked to a story from The Washington Times (a real, balanced piece of journalism) which states that the Pew report shows that 21% of gun owners had contacted a public official about gun policy at some point in their lives, but only 12% of the nonowners said they did.

Now before everyone in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community gets all hot and bothered about a tidal wave of gun owners out there who are endlessly surging forward to defend their ownership of guns, let me inject a bit of reality into the NRA’s membership claims. In 2015 the organization claims to have received $165 million in dues, which happens to be $10 million less than what they picked up in their biggest year, which was 2013.  At the current rate of $40 a year, this works out to slightly more than 4 million members, although there are various multi-year deals which might alter those numbers somewhat.

The other way to estimate the NRA membership is to figure out the circulation of their four magazines – American Rifleman, American Hunter, Shooting Illustrated, America’s Freedom – one of which every dues-paying member receives. But if you take a look at their press kit, you’ll notice that the figure for American Rifleman of 5.5 million refers to ‘total audience,’ which is based not on circulation of the magazine, but on a survey conducted by a firm, GfK, which does consumer research about all kinds of things. In fact, this same company conducts surveys for Pew.

How many members does the NRA really have?  As many as they want to have as long as their numbers aren’t totally crazy or based on things they say which simply can’t be true. But if, according to Pew, 9% of gun owners contacted a public official this past year as opposed to 5% of nonowners, then what these numbers tell me is that, pace what the NRA is trumpeting about the political activism of their members, the numbers don’t show that at all.

Remember that Pew reported gun ownership as representing 30% of the adults who answered the poll. Which means that there are 73.5 million who own guns in the United States and 171.7 million who don’t. And if you do the math on the percentages of both groups who contacted a public official, the gun-owning group numbers 6.6 million but the non-owning political activists topped 8.6 mil.

I would be willing to bet that gun owners, by and large, probably reach out more frequently to lawmakers because the NRA has its communication strategies down pat. But if anyone believes that the playing field over gun rights hasn’t become more level since Sandy Hook, they better think again. The NRA is hardly moribund, that’s true, but the other side seems to be keeping pace.

I’m Not Sure We Really Know Why People Own Guns

What concerns me about surveys which report on why Americans own guns, is the surveys all make the mistake of asking respondents who say they own a gun whether the gun is owned for hunting and sport shooting or for self-defense. And survey after survey claims that while in the olden days people owned guns for hunting and sport, now most guns are kept around for self-defense.

sales   I happen to think that such surveys don’t really tell us anything about why people own guns. Because people are much more complicated and if you ask them questions about how they think or how they behave, you need to give them ways to respond which will let them say what’s on their minds. The problem is that the people who usually create and conduct gun surveys aren’t for the most part people who own guns. And people who don’t own guns don’t usually have much contact with people who do. So what you end up getting in these surveys, like the recent survey conducted by Pew, are answers to questions that people creating the survey believe to be important but might not be important to the person who takes the survey at all.

I have been running some surveys through Survey Monkey and have so far received more than 1,100 responses from residents of 47 states. The surveys ask respondents to identify themselves either as gun violence prevention activists (GVP) or gun rights activists (GRA) advocates, and members of each group can take three surveys which cover: (1). basics demographics; (2). knowledge of gun laws; (3). facts about gun violence and guns. This is the first time that surveys will be published that generate data not from ‘average’ Americans who may or may not own guns, but from the people on both sides whose energies and activities create and sustain the gun debate.

Links to all surveys are here:

Survey #1 – GVP survey   GRA survey.

Survey #2 – GVP survey    GRA survey.

Survey #3 – GVP survey    GRA survey.

I have recently posted another survey which asks people to respond who not only own guns, but explain how they are really used. For example, the survey question about why people own a gun has four possible answers: (1). self-protection, (2). hunting and sport, (3). because I like it, and (4). I don’t know. Believe it or not, so far 85% of the gun owners who answered this question say they own a gun because they like owning a gun.

Another question asks respondents if they reload ammunition. So far, 25% of the responses have been ‘yes.’  This is a remarkable number because it is so high. I used to reload 9mm and 45. There was a sand pit about 5 minutes from my house; I could go out to the garage, run 50-100 rounds through my press in just a few minutes, grab my Colt 1911 or my Hi-Power, drive out to the pit, set up a couple of empty beer or soda cans and bang away.

Someone who reloads today is really into guns because there’s so much cheap, military surplus ammo around that who can be bothered to scavenge some lead, then scavenge brass, then run out and buy powder and primers when you can go down to the gun shop and buy 50 rounds for ten bucks or less? There may be a couple of real gun-nuts out there who reload because they want to carry the single, most accurate hunting round into field. But have you ever seen a gun survey that asked respondents whether or not they reload for theie guns?

My dearest friend and hunting buddy Sherrill Smith passed away last year at the age of 81. He was probably the best deer hunter and reloader in all of South Carolina, which in the Palmetto State is saying something mighty big. Sherill always carried a gun, usually two guns just to make sure. He was also a lifelong member of the NRA. If I had ever asked him why he carried those guns he would have shrugged and said, “Well Mike, I just like those guns.”

 

If We Don’t Want People To Use Guns For Self-Defense, What Options Do They Have?

Our good friends at the Center for American Progress (CAP) have just released an important and valuable study, America Under Fire, which I am going to review in detail later this week. But since the report is, so to speak, hot off the presses, I would like to raise one issue which needs to be considered when we try figure out whether gun violence can be reduced through new or expanded laws.

goetz           Which is not the intention of the CAP report per se; the tree they bark up is to determine whether gun regulations have any impact on gun violence at all.  And with a judicious use of data from a variety of sources, the authors of this report believe, as they state, that “the link between weak gun laws and higher rates of gun violence cannot be ignored.”  For the moment I’ll hold off on exploring the ins and outs of that link; my goal today is to raise a wider issue coterminous to the report but not a focus of the report itself.

The latest research from the Harvard-Northeastern team indicates that 22% of American adults admit to being owners of guns.  Within this population, two-thirds of these gun owners claim that their primary reason for owning a gun is for self-defense.  That gets us down to roughly 15% of American adults who have decided to respond to their concerns about personal safety by going out and getting a gun.

According to other surveys, two-thirds of all Americans also believe that a home is a safer place if it contains a gun.  And more than half of all Americans worry a ‘great deal’ about crime and another quarter worry about crime ‘a fair amount.’ So the bottom line is two-thirds of all Americans are concerned about their personal safety, two-thirds believe that a gun will make them more safe, but at best only a small portion of people who are worried about personal safety and believe that a gun is a proper and perhaps positive response to this problem actually invoke that response.

Now the gun industry would love it if everyone would run out a buy a gun, or at least everyone who is concerned about personal safety but has not yet acquired a gun.  The industry has been promoting using guns for self-defense for more than twenty years, and God knows a day doesn’t pass without another scam website opening up which promises to deliver the be-all and end-all training for everyone who just received their concealed-carry permit or lives in a state where walking around with a gun for self-protection (or any other dumb reason) doesn’t require any kind of licensing at all.

But the fact remains that most people who claim to be concerned about their personal safety, or at least believe that violent crime getting worse (if you don’t know anyone like that you might try going to the next Trump rally, even though there may not be many more Trump rallies) have made the conscious decision not to protect themselves with a gun. And for all the talk about guns and self-protection, I have yet to see one, single survey which asks people who don’t own guns how they protect themselves from crime. Not a single survey. Not one.

What I think would really move the GVP debate forward would be an attempt to figure out how people deal with their fears or concerns about personal safety without using or buying a gun.  Because if we are going to reduce gun violence, no matter how effective we believe certain laws might be, we have to be able to offer viable, non-gun options to folks who simply don’t believe they have any choice except to rely on their guns. If GVP can develop a strategy that makes gun owners feel they can be safe without relying on their guns, this would mark a fundamental change in how the debate about gun violence is currently framed.

Does Knowledge About Guns Laws Promote More Gun Laws? Maybe Yes, Maybe No.

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.

peacenow              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.