As the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, the nation’s voters have just sent some mixed messages on the issue of firearms: though many say that gun violence is an increasingly important issue, a majority don’t think that the most commonly debated policy fix would make a difference.

That’s the takeaway from a recent poll by CNN and ORC International, which showed tepid belief that a stronger background check system would effectively keep guns out of the hands of people with serious criminal records or severe mental illness. Among those surveyed, 31 percent felt that more comprehensive background checks would be only “somewhat likely” to block the mentally ill from buying guns, while 25 percent felt that new laws would be “not at all likely” to produce that outcome. When the poll asked about preventing persons with serious criminal records from buying guns, 23 percent said that more comprehensive background checks might possibly work, and 35 percent responded that they probably would not, versus just 42 percent who felt confident that such measures would do the job.

On their own, those findings are striking. But in the context of another recent survey about attitudes towards gun policy, the CNN numbers become downright puzzling.

This past June, researchers from Johns Hopkins found overwhelming support across all sectors of the American public to expand background checks to cover private sales — 83 percent of non-gun owners and 85 percent of gun owners told the researchers they endorsed the policy. This is consistent with the researchers’ similar survey in 2013, which found that 90 percent of non-gun owners and 84 percent of gun owners supported the measure.

The divergent results raise a pressing question for those invested in the debate over gun safety and gun rights: are these polls in conflict with one another when they find that people support background checks just as they doubt those measures won’t solve the problem? Or is it possible both are right, and the catch-phrases used obscure some more nuanced thinking?

It’s all in the delivery

One of the authors of the Johns Hopkins poll thinks the explanation for why CNN found less confidence in expanded background checks lies right at the beginning of its question. The poll asked (emphasis ours):

“If gun control laws were changed so that more comprehensive background checks were put in place for all gun purchases, how likely do you think it is that they would prevent those with mental health problems from buying guns? Prevent convicted criminals from buying guns?”

Beth McGinty, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Health Policy and Management and co-author of the poll released this summer, says that phrases like “gun control” and “gun rights” turn questions seemingly focused on specific laws into broader referenda. Such trigger words, she says, “may evoke fears about threats to Second Amendment rights and cause respondents’ political ideology, which is closely tied to opinions about firearm policy in the U.S., to be the primary factor influencing their response.” For this reason, McGinty and her colleagues seek to construct poll questions with neutral wording that keeps the focus on policies themselves.

Here’s how the Johns Hopkins team asked respondents if they supported background checks, among many other specific policies:

“Do you favor or oppose requiring a background check system for all gun sales to make sure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun?”

In the school’s 2014 anthology on gun policy and politics, some of McGinty’s colleagues wrote that polls using the words “gun control” provide poor gauges of attitudes towards specific gun policies, and instead “likely measure a constellation of attitudes about gun ownership generally and the role of government.” While the authors addressed polls that asked very broad questions about support for any and all gun laws — not just background checks — McGinty thinks a similar dynamic could be at play in the CNN poll.

It’s a phenomenon familiar to close readers of the news cycle. Most notorious might be the branding of President Obama’s biggest policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which expanded and reformed health insurance coverage, as “Obamacare.” The Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are, of course, one and the same. But many more Americans said they opposed Obamacare than the Affordable Care Act, according to a CNBC poll, which found that 35 percent of Americans had a very negative view of Obamacare, compared with 24 percent who had a very negative view of the Affordable Care Act. This dynamic was notably demonstrated when Jimmy Kimmel Live interviewed people on the street in California: One man said he disagreed with Obamacare before endorsing every one of its main provisions.

“When you’re a pollster, you have to be really careful about how you formulate the question and about how what you’re asking is what they’re hearing”

Kevin Ingham of Strategies 360, a Democratic-leaning policy polling and focus group firm, says this is why he and his colleagues don’t use the words “gun control” when measuring public attitudes on gun policy. “When you’re a pollster,” Ingham says, “you have to be really careful about how you formulate the question and about how what you’re asking is what they’re hearing,” referring to Republican public opinion expert Frank Luntz’s famous maxim.

In his experience, the words “gun control” have become “the antithesis of the belief that Americans can be trusted to own guns.” In focus groups he’s conducted, he’s often heard people say, “I don’t support gun control, but I support background checks.” When voters are given the opportunity to strengthen the background check system, they do so: take the example of Washington state, where universal background checks passed last November by a wide margin of 60 to 40 percent in favor.

The ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time

Both polls represent the opinions of very broad populations — all Americans in the case of Johns Hopkins, and all likely voters in the case of CNN. Many of these people may fall into what Ingham called “the mushy middle” — the vast majority of Americans who do not necessarily have a consistent, strong opinion on many national issues. As Ingham puts it, “All the time Americans are asked to provide their opinions to pollsters on issues they don’t really think about on a day to day basis. They don’t really walk around thinking about how we improve education or how we reduce shootings.” Many experts know there’s a wealth of research showing the effectiveness of background checks, like Dr. Garen Wintemute’s 1999 study showing those who fail background checks are less likely to be arrested for a firearms offense in the future, or a 1991 study showing how California’s expanded background check denial criteria effectively prevented gun-related and violent crime. Polls don’t try to evaluate expert opinion but rather public opinion as it stands, without access to briefing books.

Does this validate a certain condescending attitude of media and political professionals toward the public, who don’t even know what they think? Ingham doesn’t think so.

There’s no contradiction,” he says, between the Johns Hopkins and CNN results. Rational Americans can simultaneously overwhelmingly support expanding background checks, out of their general bias towards personal responsibility and public safety, yet have doubts as to whether expanded background checks will be foolproof. They can have beliefs one way or the other about broad principles like “gun control” and “gun sense,” which suggest allegiance to a larger political program or attitude, even as they have nuanced thoughts on specific policies and how those will work.

Ingham likened public opinion on these measures to speed limits, which enjoy universal support (Sammy Hagar excepted), even as it’s universally known those laws are violated frequently. Just because some laws don’t always stop the behavior they target, Ingham says, doesn’t mean people think they aren’t worthwhile: “It’s common sense that we should at least be trying to make it harder for people who want to do bad things to get guns.”

[Photo: Flickr user Marjan Lazarevski]