Recent polls from Quinnipaic, Marist, CBS News, Fox News, ABC/Washington Post, and Pew suggest that about nine out of ten Americans agree that all gun buyers should be subject to a criminal background check before being allowed to purchase their weapon. But can we believe the polls?
As I’ve pointed out in many of my posts, pollsters typically exaggerate the percentage of people who have an opinion by using “forced-choice” questions, which pressure respondents to offer an opinion even if they don’t have one.
Besides, getting 90% of Americans to agree to almost anything that’s meaningful would be an amazing feat. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, Gallup polls found barely that percentage of Americans “extremely” or “very” proud to be an American.
Yet, as surprising as it may seem, it turns out that public support for background checks is, in fact, around the 90 percent level.
A review of recent polls is shown in the following table:
Unlike the other polls, the iMediaEthics poll measured intensity of opinion (whether respondents felt “strongly” or “not strongly” about the issue), and if the two categories are added together, they provide a comparable figure with other polls.
The iMediaEthics’ poll asked differently worded questions to two sets of respondents. In Form A, the question was very general, asking whether respondents supported background checks, but not mentioning any specific place where the guns are bought. In Form B, the question was expanded to mention specific places where the background checks would apply — for purchases online, at gun shops, and at gun shows.
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The Form A results, based on the very general question, show 87% who “strongly” support background checks, and another 8% who support background checks but “not strongly.” Added together, iMediaEthics found 95% support, compared with other poll results (all 90% or above) that also used a general question.
Note that five polls found less than 90% of Americans in favor of background checks: Morning Joe/Marist (87%), Pew/USA Today (83%), Fox News (85%) and the Form B wording of the iMediaEthics poll (85%).
In all of those cases, the question wording mentioned more than background checks in general, such as “private sales” or “online” purchases. When people are asked about this more extensive type of background checks, they are a little less willing to support them.
Still, even the more extensive type of background check elicits exceptionally high support.
Perhaps more crucial is the number of people who are opposed to such a policy. The percentages vary from a low of 5% to a high of 15%. And, as the iMediaEthics poll suggests, “strong” opposition is even lower – just 7% based on one question wording, and a minuscule 3% based on the more general wording.
Perhaps figures like these have prompted several Republican Senators to distance themselves from a threatened filibuster against gun control legislation by some of the their GOP Senate colleagues. Despite various ways of measuring public opinion on this matter, all results show a similar pattern: Overwhelming support for criminal background checks for gun buyers.