Article published Friday, July 5, 2013, at The Columbus Dispatch.

Polls give a skewed picture of gun issues

By John R. Lott, Jr.

The onslaught against Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio continues. In April, Portman, unlike his U.S. Senate colleague from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, dared to vote against the Senate gun-control bill, and since then he has endured inaccurate attacks from out-of-state opponents such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, condemning his vote.

Former Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, included Ohio in their plans for a seven-state tour to stir up opposition.

While deserving our greatest sympathy for the tragedy they have personally suffered, Giffords and Kelly are plain wrong about the “common-sense gun-control proposals” they advocate.

The couple’s message emphasizes polling data, which they claim finds that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans are in favor of expanded background-checks legislation. They argue that Portman doesn’t care about what his constituents want or whether laws will save lives but simply whether the NRA will give him money. As Kelly puts it, “How do you balance what your constituents want with how much money is going to be spent against you in your next election?”

The polls showing such overwhelming support really ask little more than whether people want to stop criminals from obtaining guns, not whether voters actually favor the legislation that Giffords and Kelly support.

For example, a mid-April poll by the Pew Research Center provides one such illustration when it asks voters whether they were happy that the Senate bill had been defeated. While 67 percent of Democrats were “disappointed” or “angry” about the defeat, more Republicans and independents were “ very happy” or “relieved” than upset by the defeat.

Kelly often points out how the approval rating for some of the senators who voted against gun control has dropped over the past six months or so. Most of this polling is from the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling. Rasmussen Reports finds President Barack Obama’s own disapproval rating on guns also rose by 13 percentage points from February to early June. In April, a Quinnipiac University poll found only 41 percent of Americans approved of Obama's stand on gun control.

The polls frequently ignore that gun-control advocates don’t feel very intensely about this issue. The latest Gallup poll in late June finds that gun control doesn’t even reach the top 15 issues that Americans were most concerned about. In April, gun control ranked ninth, but just 4 percent of Americans were most concerned about that issue.

Note these questions emphasize the supposed benefits from background checks but leave out concerns about a gun registry and the fees imposed on gun transfers, and that almost everyone stopped by the current background-check system was a falsely flagged, law-abiding citizen who had a similar name to the person whom the government wanted stopped.

Unfortunately, Giffords and Kelly’s claims about polling are as wrong as their claims about safety. A March survey of active duty and retired police by PoliceOne, with more than 400,000 police officers as members, found that only 12 percent of the 15,000 who responded think that universal background checks will reduce violent crime. Because respondents were self-selecting, the survey was not scientific and, therefore, its accuracy can’t be determined. But it does show that a significant number of police are dubious about the proposal.

Delays in the background-check system are undoubtedly just an inconvenience for most people buying guns. But for a few, it makes a huge difference in being able to defend themselves against someone who poses an imminent threat. Indeed, my own research suggests these delays might actually contribute to a slight net increase in violent crime, particularly rapes.

Unfortunately, despite Kelly’s claims, a background check would not have stopped the man who shot his wife from getting a gun. Jared Loughner had never been legally found to suffer mental illness, nor had he ever been convicted of a crime. Nor would any background checks on private transfers have stopped the Connecticut, Wisconsin, Colorado or other attacks. In addition, the system couldn’t work without government registering all guns.

Expanded background checks might well be reasonable, but only if the current system is fixed. Despite the pressure on Portman, he understands that we shouldn’t pass laws just to feel that we have done something.

John Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of More Guns, Less Crime.

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