A majority of Americans support stronger gun laws, but much of the public seems misinformed about the rules currently on the books. That’s the conclusion of a new survey by Yale University researchers Benjamin Miller and Peter Aronow, whose study shows that while 53 percent of respondents favor stricter gun regulation, 41 percent believe the federal government already requires universal background checks for gun purchases. There is no such law, and Aronow and Miller believe that the misconception could be reducing pressure on politicians to pass stricter gun laws.
In a national poll of 1,384 people, Miller and Aronow queried participants on both their attitudes towards and knowledge of gun safety laws. “No one had ever asked those questions on the same survey,” says Miller. “So we ran our own.” The pair found that among Americans who strongly favor universal background checks and know that the government does not mandate them, 89 percent support stricter gun laws. But among a second group who favor universal background checks and believe such a mandate is already in place, support for stricter gun laws dips to 74 percent.
Only 47 percent of those surveyed knew that a background check is not required for many sales and transfers by private, unlicensed parties, while 12 percent believed that background checks aren’t required for any firearm purchases.
The researchers became interested in the public’s knowledge of gun laws following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the months after the massacre, a number of gun reform bills made their way to Congress. One such bill, the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, would have expanded background checks to firearm sales at gun shows and over the Internet. But despite overwhelming public support — a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University during the ensuing legislative debate found that 91 percent of Americans in favor of universal screening — the bill came up six votes short in the Senate.
Miller and Aronow’s research also corroborated evidence of an “activism gap” among proponents of gun restrictions. Despite earlier polling showing that more than half of Americans support new gun restrictions, people who oppose such regulation are more likely to be politically active on the issue or base their vote on gun rights. Miller and Aronow found that among respondents who thought gun laws should be less strict, 71 percent said they would never vote for a candidate who didn’t share their views on gun control. Only 34 percent of the respondents who supported stricter gun measures said the same thing.
Both Miller and Aronow would like to take their findings one step further. “We’re thinking of running an experiment where we inform subjects about the current laws — that background checks aren’t required for gun sales at gun shows or over the Internet — and see whether that shifts people’s positions on stricter gun laws,” Miller says.