Further Thoughts on Survey Questions and Surveying Change in Attitudes toward Guns

I recently shared some thoughts on the controversy over a Pew Research Center question on attitudes toward gun rights vs. gun control.

I was particularly surprised to see Pew Research in the cross-hairs here because I have so much respect for the work they do. I recently spent several weeks revising a sociology of religion textbook that I co-authored. I benefited tremendously from the information about religion provided by Pew Research on their website. They are truly interested in using survey research to promote greater understanding, and provide many resources to the public to that end.

Pew Research Center Homepage

The case of the disputed survey question on guns is a great example of this. Pew Research provides a summary of the issue that highlights key findings. This is where you can find the graph showing the dramatic shift in public opinion away from gun control toward gun rights in the past 6 or 7 years.

Pew Research Center Graph on Rights vs Control

But Pew Research also makes available at the click of a mouse button or tap of a tablet screen the complete report as a PDF.

They also make readily available, for people who want to peer even further behind the curtain, the topline questionnaire.

And in many cases, they make available for download free of charge (after a few months embargo) the underlying survey data so that anyone who wants to run their own analyses can do so.

This is what scientists ought to do because having access to these resources allows us to get beyond the headlines and petitions. For example, looking at the topline questionnaire, we can see that following the disputed gun question (Q.53) is a follow-up question which was asked of those who gave their opinion about gun rights vs. gun control: “Do you feel strongly about that, or not” (Q.54). This was asked in December 2014, January 2013, December 2012, and February 2004. Each year it was asked, a higher percentage of those favoring gun control answered “not strongly” compared to those favoring gun rights.

Pew Research Center How Strongly Feel About Gun Rights vs Control

Looking just at those who feel strongly about their answer to Q.53, the 6 point gap in favor of gun rights becomes a 10 point gap: 47% strongly support protecting the right of Americans to own guns vs. 37% who strongly support controlling gun ownership.

Another benefit of getting behind the headlines is that you can see that this Pew Research survey did not only ask one question about guns in American society. It also asked, “Do you think that gun ownership in this country does more to [INSERT OPTION; RANDOMIZE] or does more to [NEXT OPTION]?” The randomized language inserted was “protect people from becoming victims of crime” or “put people’s safety at risk.” (Randomizing the order of the wording helps to reduce response bias.)

Pew Research Gun Ownership and Crime

More American adults believe that gun ownership helps protect people from becoming victims of crime than putting people at risk, and that gap is growing. As the Pew Research report shows, it includes a majority of men, women, whites, blacks, Republicans, and Independents. In the minority are Democrats, most dramatically so among self-identified liberal Democrats, only 20% of whom believe that gun ownership does more to protects people from crime as compared to putting them at risk (76%). At the opposite extreme are self-identified conservative Republicans, 86% of whom fall on the protection side and only 10% on the safety at risk side. This information is very instructive in understanding contemporary gun politics.

It also echoes a recent finding which also to my knowledge has not been challenged by petition (yet). Four times since 2000, the Gallup polling organization has asked Americans, “Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?” When first asked in 2000, 35% of Americans responded safer and 51% more dangerous (and 11% depends). In 2004 and 2006 the numbers shifted gradually toward safer. In 2006, a higher percentage said safer (47%) than more dangerous (43%), but it was not until October 2014 that a majority of Americans responded that a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be (63%) than a more dangerous place to be (30%) (with only 6% responding it depends).

Of note, is that this shift in beliefs about guns in the home is found not just among Republicans but among Independents and even Democrats! This is visually represented in the following graphic produced by Gallup.

Gallup Gun in Home Safer Graph

To be sure, I am only looking at one side of the equation here. There are other surveys out there which show a great deal of complexity in Americans beliefs about guns, for example on the extent to which they think background checks are a good idea. Figuring out the best way to ask questions about attitudes toward specific forms of gun control or the extent of gun rights is important.

And, in my opinion as an academic social scientist, it is important that this work be done not by political advocacy organizations like the Greenwich Council Against Gun Violence which proposed on Change.org that the Pew Research Center ask the following atrocious question: “Which do you think is more important: make it harder for criminals, domestic abusers and the severely mentally ill to get guns or protect the right to own guns with minimal restrictions?”

My sense is that the Supreme Court decision in the Heller case both captured (and perhaps helped to solidify) American’s dominant belief that gun ownership is an individual right AND is subject to regulation (per Antonin Scalia).

A small minority of gun rights supporters favor no restrictions whatsoever and a small minority of gun control advocates want to do away with guns entirely. For the broad and deep middle of America, the salient question is where to draw the line. Which reminds me, one of these days I need to review Adam Winkler’s book Gunfight here, which makes this point exceptionally well.


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