Gun control misperceptions: Q&A with Yale researcher Benjamin Miller

When President Obama announced his decision earlier this month to implement modest new restrictions on gun sales through executive action, he expressed regret that Congress has failed to enact gun control measures despite public opinion polls showing widespread support for tightening gun laws.

Yale researchers Peter Aronow, assistant professor of political science, and Benjamin Miller, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, have studied this apparent disconnect between public opinion and Congress on passing gun control legislation.

In a nationally representative survey of 1,384 people, Aronow and Miller found evidence that widespread misperceptions about existing federal gun laws could be hindering efforts to pass tougher gun control legislation. They found that while a large majority supports strong gun control laws, many people believe such laws already exist and that new legislation is unnecessary. For example, 41% of respondents believed that federal law already requires universal background checks for gun purchases, which is not the case.

Their findings were recently published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which also cited their work in an editorial on gun violence.

Miller recently spoke with YaleNews about this research.

Where did the idea for the survey originate?

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School there was a lot of debate about tightening gun control laws, and various polls showed widespread support for it. Finally, a bill was proposed in Congress — the Manchin-Toomey bill — that would have closed existing loopholes in the background check system. But the bill didn’t attract enough votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, and even if it had passed the Senate, it would have been dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. So I looked at the public opinion data and wondered how, in a democracy, something so overwhelmingly favored by the public could fail to pass.

I had seen the Quinnipiac poll that showed that 92% of Americans favor universal background checks, but then there are other polls that show that Americans are about equally divided over whether gun control laws should be stricter or not. So it seemed like there was a kind of disconnect there, because if most people favor universal background checks, and we don’t have universal background checks, then that should imply that most people favor stricter gun laws. And I had seen other surveys that showed a large proportion of people, about half, think that universal background checks are already the law. They are unaware of the loopholes for sales at guns shows or over the Internet.

So I was inspired to put these things together and determine whether the ignorance of the legal status quo is what is driving the fact that there has not been new federal legislation in spite of this seemingly overwhelming public support.

What did you ask people?

We asked four questions. We asked whether gun laws should be made stricter, less strict, or kept as they are, and whether people favor or oppose universal background checks. Then we asked people about the current law for background checks: whether they are required for all gun purchases, some gun purchase, or no gun purchases — some gun purchases being the correct answer.

Finally, we asked whether people would vote for an otherwise qualified candidate who did not share their position on gun control. There is an existing literature suggesting that there is an engagement gap, or an intensity gap, between proponents and opponents of gun control, such that a majority of the country supports gun control, but those who oppose it care more strongly about it and are more likely to base their vote on the gun issue.

What did you find?

We found that 77% of Americans favor universal background checks, but only 53% said they favor stricter gun laws. That’s a quarter of the population, at least, that has this inconsistent position of wanting universal background checks — which we do not have and which would represent a tightening of gun laws — but opposing stricter gun laws. We also found that 41% of Americans think that we already have universal background checks.

The key finding was that, among the people who strongly favor universal background checks, those who knew that we don’t already have them were more likely to say that we should have stricter gun laws. Among those who strongly favor universal background checks but incorrectly believed that they already exist, only three-quarters favored stricter gun laws (which is still a lot). But among those who knew that we don’t have universal background checks, nearly 9 in 10 favored stricter gun laws.

That seems to be an effect of knowledge on favoring change in legislation.

"Generally speaking, Americans tend
to have misperceptions about a lot of issues."

We also found support for the engagement gap. We found that 71% of people who thought that gun laws should be less strict said they would not vote for an otherwise qualified candidate with whom they disagreed on guns, whereas only 34% of people who favored stricter gun laws said they would base their vote on the gun issue, which supports existing evidence.

What do you think causes these misperceptions about current federal gun laws?

Generally speaking, Americans tend to have misperceptions about a lot of issues. It’s been a robust finding in political science for the past 50 years that the American public — and in most advanced democracies — just doesn’t often know that much about various political issues, particularly those issues that tend to be of lower importance in most voters’ minds. Most voters say that the most important issues to them are things like the economy or national security. Things like gun control tend to rank lower on most voters’ lists of priorities.

There are some other issues where it seems to me that there might be a similar dynamic at work that would be worth investigating. For example, polls show that a large majority of Americans support a federal law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. There have been polls that show that most Americans believe that those laws already exist at the federal level. They don’t, and legislation to that effect has failed to pass in Congress even though a large majority of Americans support a federal law prohibiting that kind of discrimination. So there seems to be a similar dynamic happening with these issues in which people assume that a law they would like already exists, perhaps because they think it seems so reasonable that it must already exist.

And there are other issues where there is a similar disconnect between public opinion and legislation: raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, limiting carbon emissions. These all have failed to pass Congress in recent years despite polling that shows strong public support for them.

Which is a bigger factor in the failure to pass stronger gun measures: the engagement gap or people’s misperceptions of existing gun laws?

I think they’re probably related. I think that because people who are pro-gun-rights tend to be more engaged with the issue than people who support more gun control; they probably know more about existing laws and probably are more likely to contact their congressional representatives. There are various mechanisms by which both the engagement gap and the information gap could impact the dynamic in Congress.  There’s a lot more to investigate in this area.

Do you plan to do any additional research?

We’re considering performing an experiment. We have this correlational finding that, among the people who strongly favor universal background checks, knowing that they don’t currently exist is predictive of support for stricter gun laws. That’s not necessarily a causal finding. So what we want to do now is a survey experiment where we inform people about the current laws — the existence of the gun show loophole and the Internet loophole — and see if that causes people to be more in favor of stricter gun laws.

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