Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons – Why Do Three Polls Report Conflicting Resp

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Three recent polls show how convoluted the debate can become over what the public thinks about banning semi-automatic weapons.

All three polls were conducted in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shootings, and all three come to different conclusions as to how much public support there is for banning semiautomatic weapons of the type used by the shooter.


The Pew poll and CNN/ORC poll were conducted over virtually the same time period (Dec. 17-19, and Dec. 17-18), while the ABC News/Washington Post poll was concluded just a day before the other two began (Dec. 14-16). As shown in the accompanying chart:

  • Pew finds a plurality of Americans opposed to banning semi-automatic guns, with a 5-point margin of opposition (44% favor, 49% oppose).
  • By contrast, CNN finds a 25-point margin in favor (62% to 37%).
  • And the ABC/WP poll shows a modest 8-point margin in favor (52% to 44%).

How is it that three reputable polling organizations, all interviewing in roughly the same time frame, come to such conflicting conclusions?

Question wording is one possible explanation. Here is the wording for each poll:


“Please tell me if you would favor or oppose the following proposals: Banning semi-automatic guns, which automatically reload when the trigger is pulled?”


“Please tell me whether you would generally favor or oppose each of the following proposals, which some people have made to reduce the amount of gun violence: A ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK47?”


“Would you support or oppose a law requiring a nationwide ban on semi-automatic handguns, which automatically reload every time the trigger is pulled?”

The Pew question seems to refer to handguns, most of which are, in fact, semi-automatic. ABC/Washington Post is more explicit in referring to handguns, though it still finds more support for a ban than does Pew. CNN mentions “guns,” but then adds “such as the AK47,” which is a rifle.

Another possible explanation for the differences among the three major pollsters is that they all used forced-choice questions, which pressure respondents to express opinions regardless of whether they actually have one. One common result among the three pollsters is the low number of people without an opinion: 7% reported by Pew, 1% by CNN, and 3% by ABC/Washington Post.

Clearly, many respondents in each of those surveys were pressured to produce opinions, a process which can cause distortions in measuring what the public is thinking.

In the iMediaEthics PollCheck survey last August, we found 40% strongly in favor of making it illegal to sell or own a semi-automatic rifle and 25% opposed, with more than a third (35%) having no strong opinion one way or the other.

Next month, iMediaEthics will conduct a follow-up PollCheck survey on gun control, to see whether there has been a significant change in public opinion since the Sandy Hook School shootings.

In the meantime, we know the public either supports a ban on semi-automatic guns by 25 percentage points, or opposes it by 5 points – or is somewhere in-between.

I hope that’s helpful!



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Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons – Why Do Three Polls Report Conflicting Responses?

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