Media Bias in Coverage of Gun Control

The Press Evaluates the Popular Culture

by David B. Kopel

This paper appears as a chapter in the book William Tonso, Editor, The Gun Culture and Its Enemies (Merril Press: 1989). More by Kopel on media bias in coverage of gun control.

I. INTRODUCTION

Gun owners frequently assert that the press in the United States in biased in favor of gun control. While it is easy for critics of the media to point out inaccuracies in individual stories, proving more systematic bias is difficult Perhaps a program such as CBS's "The Guns of Autumn" was slanted. But, it might be argued, CBS's coverage of animal rights activists is just as distorted as its coverage of hunters. How to measure the distortion in the hunting story versus the distortion in the animal rights story? "A/B comparisons" are usually impossible. This paper will examine one of the few instances when a true "A/B comparison" is feasible, the coverage of two very similar story events regarding public opinion polling regarding gun control: one, a 1978 poll by liberal pollster Pat Caddell, the other a pair of late 1970's polls by conservative pollster Richard Wirthlin.

II. THE SURVEYS COMPARED

A. Institutional Similarities

In many respects, the pro-control and anti-control surveys were mirror images. The Caddell study was conducted by Cambridge Survey Reports, Inc., a liberal polling institution headed by Pat Caddell. The survey was sponsored the Center for the Study of and Prevention of Handgun Violence (hereinafter "the Center" or "CSPHV") an ancestor of America's leading anti-gun lobby, Handgun Control Inc.[1] The Caddell Survey was used by its anti-gun sponsors to support their arguments in favor of gun control. The Center released its results on the 10th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination, one day before a key House of Representatives vote to block a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms regulation to register all commercial gun sales.[2]Other parts of the study (not released to the public) involved marketing research for anti-gun media campaigns, such as testing which spokesperson for gun control would be most effective.[3]

Similarly, the pro-gun polls were conducted by Decision-Making Information, a conservative polling group headed by Richard Wirthlin (hereinafter DMI). The surveys were sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and the Second Amendment Foundation, the nation's leading pro-gun groups. The first poll was released in 1975, partly to counter calls for gun controls following the assassination attempts against President Ford. The most thorough DMI survey was released in March 1979. Whenever DMI data was released, leading pro-gun Senators and Representatives appeared to announce the results.

Methodology was similar too. The Caddell Survey sampled 1500 adults between April 20 and May 15, 1978.Only four days after the Caddell survey was completed, the second DMI survey began, and ran until June 9, 1978.(DMI conducted further polling in December 1978.)

The only notable methodological difference was that Cambridge surveyed all adults, while DMI surveyed only registered voters.[4] Accordingly, DMI's sample was slightly older, whiter, and more middle class. Since attitudes about gun control do not correlate strongly with socioeconomic status, the somewhat different composition of the samples was probably insignificant.[5]

Thus, the groups involved in the two polls were almost exact mirror images. The pollsters were of equal stature and expertise, and the sponsors were the leading lobbies on each side of the gun control question.

B. Similar Results

In addition, as Professor James Wright has detailed, the two surveys reported quite consistent results. Both surveys reported consistent findings that about 40-50% of U.S. households owned some kind of gun, and about half of those households owned a handgun. The two surveys agreed that about 7% of adults carry a gun on their person, and that 40% of handgun owners bought their weapon mainly for self-protection. About 15% of all registered voters or their families had used a gun in self-defense (including by brandishing it). Caddell reported that 2% of all adults had personally fired a handgun in self-defense; DMI found that 6% of all registered voters or their families had fired a gun in self-defense.[6] The incidence of firearms accidents was about equal to the incidence of firearms use for self-defense.[7]

The two surveys also produced similar results about gun control. Regarding mandatory prison sentences for criminals who use a gun, Caddell found 83% support, and DMI found 93% support.[8]Requiring detailed record-keeping by gun dealers was favored by 54% of the DMI respondents, and 49% of Caddell's.[9] Caddell found about 62% of the population against a ban on handgun ownership, while DMI found 83% opposed.[10] Each survey found 40-50% agreeing that stricter gun controls would reduce crime.[11] 78% of Caddell's sample thought that gun control laws only affect law-abiding citizens; 85-91% of DMI's sample thought registration would not prevent criminals from acquiring handguns.[12] About half of the DMI and Caddell samples agreed that national gun registration might eventually lead to total firearms confiscation.[13]

To the extent the surveys seemed to differ, it was usually because the pollsters had asked different questions. For example, 87% of DMI thought that the Constitution guaranteed an individual right to own a gun, and 53% of Caddell thought handgun licensing was Constitutional. The results were consistent, in that the majority may have felt that the Constitution guarantees a right to own a gun, but that handgun licensing does not violate that right.[14]

Thus, Wright and his coauthors Rossi and Daly concluded:

Despite the occasionally sharp differences in emphasis and interpretation...the actual empirical findings from the two surveys are remarkably similar. Results from comparable (even roughly comparable) items rarely differ between the two surveys by more than 10 percentage points, well within the "allowable" limits given the initial differences in sampling frame and the usual margin of survey error....[O]n virtually all points where a direct comparison is possible, the evidence from each survey says essentially the same thing.[15]

In short, except for the fact that the two surveys came from different sides of the gun control debate and highlighted different aspects of their results, they were nearly identical. Yet the press treated the two stories quite differently.

III. HOW THE PRESS TREATED THE PRO-GUN SURVEYS

The notion that the American press is monolithically liberal, or monolithically anti-gun, is quite wrong. Every four years, a solid majority of American newspapers endorse the Republican presidential candidate -- whether the candidate is headed for a landslide defeat like Goldwater, or is bitterly hostile to the press, like Nixon.

Of course most of the newspapers that make up the conservative majority of the press are small town papers, and these papers often treated the pro-gun surveys very well. Several papers, including the Salt Lake Sunset News, the Provo Herald, The American Fork Citizen, The North Las Vegas Valley Times-News, the Fallon Eagle Standard, the Newport Plain Talk, and the Murray Ledger & Times ran a piece that covered the Wirthlin poll in the friendliest way possible.[16] If the article (used by all these papers) was not a Second Amendment Foundation press release, it should have been. The piece quoted many anti-control statistics, omitted all the pro-control statistics, and led with quotes from the Second Amendment Foundation. Like the larger dailies, these small papers did not identify the author of the poll as "Richard Wirthlin, the New Right's leading pollster." Instead, the source was merely "Decision Making Information, a California based polling firm."

It might be argued that the mere printing of these gun lobby press releases does not prove that the small newspaper were necessarily pro-gun. Because small papers have very small staffs, they often rely on news items fed them by public relations officers. Nevertheless, it should be noted that all of the headlines for the small town stories treated the news respectfully; the headlines were "Americans Oppose Gun Control," or even "Gun Control: Not Effective," rather than "Conservative Pollster Claims Americans Oppose Gun Control."

Some small papers used the DMI news as a springboard for their own pro-gun stories. The Ardmoriete, of Ardmore, Oklahoma editorialized against gun control, drawing extensively on DMI. The editorial did disclose that the poll had been commissioned by the NRA.[17]

In Sophia, West Virginia, The Gulf Times reported a new poll released by the N.R.A. "that appears to conflict with previous polling on the subject." DMI was identified as "a polling company in Santa Ana, Calif." The article did a man-in-the-street survey of local residents, and found most of them opposed to gun controls. The article seemed to hypothesize that public opinion had changed since the Gallup and Harris polls were taken, for "88 percent now believe they have a right to own weapons." Further, "88 percent of the 1,500 registered voters surveyed said they had used a gun to protect themselves or their property." (This sentence incorrectly implied that the gun owners had actually fired in self-defense, rather than merely keeping the weapon for self-defense purposes. Further, since far less than 88% of Americans own or have access to guns, it would impossible for such a high percentage to even possess for self-defense.)[18]

Of course small-town papers were not unanimously favorable towards DMI. Several small northeastern papers ran an op-ed piece which took issue with parts of the poll. It noted, for example, that only 13% of respondents stated there are too many gun laws. Further, the results contrasted with Harris and Gallup polls, as well as a poll taken by "the liberal Cambridge Reports Inc." Nevertheless, the article quoted Sen. Steve Symms about the "ballot box...the jury box...[and] the cartridge box," and concluded that no further gun controls were necessary.[19]

"Outdoors" columnists were another source of favorable reporting of the DMI polls. In the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania's The Chronicle, for example, the outdoors column touted the anti-control findings in detail. In the first paragraph, the NRA was identified as the sponsor, and "Dr. Richard Wirthlin" as the pollster (without further detail).[20]Pro-gun publications like Tennessee Out-of-Doors ran lengthy enthusiastic stories about the survey." Dr. Richard Wirthlin" was quoted, but the NRA was never referred to.[21]The South Dakota Dept. of Game, Fish, and Parks wrote a similarly zealous essay. Gallup and Harris were specifically criticized, and the NRA never mentioned.[22]Other "outdoors" columnists took a similar tack.[23]Some columnists did mention the NRA's role, while still reporting the results enthusiastically.[24]

Editorial pages of larger metropolitan dailies are usually considered hotbeds of anti-gun extremism. Yet even here, one could find some favorable mention of the DMI polls -- albeit not by staff writers. Letters to the editor about gun control often discussed DMI,[25] and so did guest columnists.

John Lofton, a syndicated columnist, wrote an editorial contending that handgun ownership for self-protection is especially important for the poor and for minorities. Lofton cited the 1975 DMI poll to show that the top groups owning a gun solely for self-defense were blacks, the lowest-income group, and senior citizens.[26]Lofton extensively quoted Don Kates, who had himself relied on the DMI poll.[27]

Another syndicated conservative columnist, Kevin Phillips (author of The Emerging Republican Majority), cited Wirthlin's results for the proposition that the public was opposed to new gun controls. He did caution that the DMI poll "was commissioned by the strongly anti-gun control Second Amendment Foundation of Bellevue, Washington. Those origins must be kept in mind."[28]

Conservative organizations also sang DMI's praises. Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook -- perhaps the most pro-gun member of the House of Representatives -- wrote a short piece for Human Events, a respected conservative magazine; he criticized the Carter administration for working with gun control groups, and cited DMI (without further attribution) for the fact that 85% of Americans believe they have a right to own a gun.[29]

The Liberty Lobby, an ultra-conservative, racist organization, touted the DMI poll a confirming the results of its own poll in 1976."The American Rifle Association" was given credit for paying for the poll, "but did not set the terms for it." The results of the Harris and Gallup "Establishment polls," were ascribed to the pollsters interviewing "1,500 or fewer voters" to find the results the pollsters wanted.[30]

Anti-gun control organizations, of course, praised the DMI report.[31]And the sizeable gun hobbyist press liked it too.[32]Thus, an important fraction of the American print media reported the DMI poll results enthusiastically. Critical analysis went no further than mentioning that the polls were sponsored by anti-control groups such as the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation.

While most other newspapers were not necessarily thrilled with about the DMI polls, some did offer neutral news reports. For example, the most comprehensive DMI gun study was released to the public in April 1979.In a joint press conference, Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), and Representatives Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) and Steve Symms (R-Idaho) announced the results.  In their press release, author of the survey was simply "Decision Making Information of Santa Ana, California," conducting a study "Commissioned by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action."[33] Homestate newspapers for the Congressmen ran mostly neutral, factual summaries of the press release, while prominently noting the NRA's role in the poll.[34]

In other contexts, background articles on gun control treated the pro-gun and anti-gun opinion polls with equal respect. In a general news story about upcoming gun control battles in Congress, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat noted that the NRA cited the DMI poll for the proposition that the public opposed gun control, and that pro-control Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) "has just as many surveys to prove the American public favors gun control."[35]A feature story in the Arizona Republic used both DMI and Cambridge statistics in an article discussing use of firearms in self-defense.[36]

Other writers, though, set out to "debunk" the DMI polls, and explain away the results. The Associated Press noted the possibility of bias, in that the survey had been paid for by the NRA, "the major lobbying group against gun control," and that it contradicted a GAO study from the previous year. Although Dr. Wirthlin was quoted, more column inches were devoted to attacking the poll than to defending it.[37]

Some anti-DMI articles appeared even in states considered solidly pro-gun. For instance, the Manchester (N.H.) News (not the ultra-conservative Union-Leader), led with the fact that the poll had been commissioned by the NRA, and closed with the fact that the NRA had paid $63,000 for the poll. Further, the story argued that the poll contrasted with seven Gallup Polls showing large majorities in favor of requiring police permits to own a gun.[38]

The Chicago Sun-Times also set out to attack DMI's results. The NRA was mentioned as the source of the survey in the first paragraph; the second paragraph noted that backers of tougher gun control laws pointed out that other polls have overwhelmingly found Americans to favor more stringent gun control legislation. DMI was identified as a California-based firm; Dr. Richard Wirthlin was quoted denying that the questions had been phrased to achieve particular results. Particular questions were analyzed in detail, to argue that the poll did not really prove the public was opposed to more gun control laws. Handgun Control Inc. and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns were both quoted about their skepticism regarding the poll's results. In refutation, the Gallup, Harris, and "Cambridge Reports Inc." studies were cited. Lastly, the article reported three questions from the survey which showed public support for gun ownership.[39]

The Roanoke Times & World News wrote an editorial disparaging the DMI poll, based on the N.Y. Times story described below. It noted that the survey contradicted "decades" of previous research. Further, it attributed the low percentage favoring more laws to public belief that laws are stricter than they actually are. (Actually, research indicates that most people do not realize how strict gun laws already are, and therefore their "more control needed" responses to surveys do not mean that they favor stricter laws than the present ones.[40]) While claiming not to "reject out of hand" the results, the editorial, again echoing the Times, wondered if the sample was unrepresentative.[41] Three days later, a follow-up editorial quoted research from the University of Michigan's Survey research center to suggest that pro-control people hold their positions with more intensity than anti-control people.[42] While DMI had been chastised for violating the established wisdom, the editorial did not mention that the Michigan poll also contradicted the established wisdom (held by both sides of the gun control debate) that the "minority" against gun control gets its way because it is so much more passionate than the majority.[43]

The New York Times made its skepticism about the poll clear. The headline ran: "Rifle Association Poll Says Majority Oppose More Gun Legislation." The first sentence of the article stated that the poll "appears to conflict with decades of previous polling on the subject," and noted that the NRA had paid for the poll. DMI was, again, "a polling company in Santa Ana."

The story observed that seven Gallup polls and five surveys from the National Opinion Research Center from 1959 to 1976 had found large majorities in favor of permit requirements for handguns. (Since the earliest cited anti-gun poll had occurred 20 years ago, the "decades" lead was barely accurate.) In conclusion, the article stated that since the poll sample was limited to registered voters, it may not have been representative of all voters, or of the whole population.[44] The story was written by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., whose father "Punch" is a strong proponent of handgun control (and is also one of the few New Yorkers with enough back-room influence to have been issued a handgun carry permit).

Sulzberger's story left much to be desired. There is little evidence -- beyond Sulzberger's musings -- that registered voters have significantly different attitudes about gun control from unregistered voters, or from the general population.[45] Further, it was illogical for Harris and Gallup polls on gun control to be considered any more objective or reliable than the DMI polls, since Gallup and Harris are well-known gun control advocates. Indeed, Lou Harris testified before Congress in 1975 in favor of gun controls.

The Times' headlines were typical of the establishment press's conclusion that the DMI poll was simply a potted survey produced by the gun lobby: "Rifle Association Poll Says Majority Oppose More Gun Legislation." In contrast, pro-control results by pro-control researchers sponsored by the gun control lobby were treated as objective facts: "Most Americans Support Gun Control, Poll Finds."[46] (text of the story is discussed infra.)

IV. HOW THE PRESS TREATED THE ANTI-GUN SURVEYS

Let us now turn to the Cambridge Research pro-control study. Did other papers follow the New York Times' approach to the Caddell poll? Yes. In contrast to the treatment afforded the Wirthlin poll, the Caddell poll received almost no hostile coverage. Virtually the only detailed criticism came from pro-gun partisans.

The story in The Weekly Bullet, a publication for anti-gun-control activists, recounted the Center's study and noted Caddell's close relationship with President Carter. Anti-gun polling in general was criticized, since "the same question is not asked from year to year, even when conducted by the same polling organization." In addition, careful wording was necessary to maintain objectivity The DMI poll was mentioned in contrast, with the source of its funding disclosed.[47]A follow-up article in the Weekly Bullet argued that since the public is generally not aware of what the gun control laws actually are, opinion surveys in favor of "more control" are meaningless.[48]

Gun Week, another publication for pro-gun activists, basically reported the Cambridge story straight, except for a hostile headline, and a reminder at the end of the article that election results on gun referenda in Massachusetts and California had confounded pollsters' predictions. That aside, the article simply stated the poll's results, headed by the Center's statement that the poll indicated the American public to be strongly in favor of gun control.[49]

In the mainstream press, the most negative coverage of the Caddell poll came in Kevin Phillips' syndicated column. He faulted the wire service and other reports of the poll (detailed below) for reporting the results uncritically, and for claiming that a massive anti-gun consensus existed -- without even mentioning the contrasting data in the DMI poll, as well as the landslide defeat of anti-gun propositions in Massachusetts and California referenda.[50]

The Caddell poll included some results which militated against gun control; these found their way into the media mostly through pro-gun authors' guest editorials, or through letters to the editor, or in gun sports publications. In an op-ed piece, Neil Knox, the then-director of NRA Institute for Legislative Action, quoted "the 1978 Caddell poll (commissioned by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Handgun Violence)" to show that 4.5 million handguns had been used in self-defense in America.[51]A gun hobbyist magazine columnist, writing in response to an Ann Landers column, used the DMI poll as evidence that even Americans who do not own guns believe in the right to bear arms.[52]

A Field & Stream editorial referred to Caddell to point out that 43% of Americans owned guns, that 78% believed gun control laws would not affect criminals, that 40% believed handgun controls would be ineffective without long gun controls, and that 39% believed that licensing was a first step to firearms confiscation.[53] (Several months later, Field & Stream adverted to the 1975 DMI poll to show that most Americans did not believe in gun control as an answer to crime.[54])In the mainstream press, however, the only place one could learn that 78% of Caddell's respondents believed gun control would not affect criminals was in letters to the editor.[55]

Thus, the mainstream press did print criticism of the Caddell poll, but that criticism was written almost entirely by guest writers -- columnists and letters to the editor. The regular staff writers, however, responded to the Caddell poll with inappropriate enthusiasm.

The law enforcement hierarchy cheered news of the poll. Crime Control Digest gave the Center's study a long write-up.[56]The story did not mention Pat Caddell's role, and simply described the Center as a "research and educational organization." Although the article listed Nelson T. Shields as a member of the Center's Board, it did not report that Mr. Shields was Chairman of the National Council to Control Handguns.

Another publication seemed to move into the realm of deliberate distortion. The LEAA Newsletter contained a paragraph that 84% of Americans favored registration of new handguns, and 70% a ban on Saturday Night Specials. Further, "70 percent said a stand on this issue could affect their vote on specific candidates." Actually, Center had found that a pro-control stance would attract 49% of voters, and repel 21%.The LEAA's revised wording gave the impression that 70% of the public would be more inclined to vote for a pro-control candidate. Additionally, the story referred to "the independent firm of Cambridge Reports."[57]

As Professor William Tonso has explicated, the most anti-gun faction of the American press is the wire services.[58] UPI mentioned the Center, but not the Center's role as an anti-gun interest group. The study's author was described only as "Cambridge Reports," as if it were a disinterested group of academic experts in public opinion, rather than Pat Caddell's business. Caddell himself was nowhere in sight. The story listed three results favorable to gun control (people inclined to vote for pro-control candidates, in favor of various handgun controls, in favor of Saturday Night Special ban), but did admit "only 32% favor a ban on the future manufacture and sale of all handguns." (Crime Control Digest had announced that result more positively:  "Although the majority of Americans oppose such a drastic step, one in three would even go so far as to favor banning the manufacture and sale of all handguns.") The next paragraph contained a quote from control advocate Milton Eisenhower, and the final paragraph contained two more pro-control survey results.

Although strongly identified with gun control, the Washington Post only ran a short version of the UPI story, and headlined it "Poll Shows Gun Control Favored."[59]The Christian Science Monitor also ran a short version.[60]The Boston Globe printed the story in full, including three concluding paragraphs that had been cut from the Post.[61]

The AP wrote a lengthier story, emphasizing that the findings showed "record support" for strict gun laws. Although the A.P.'s piece about the Wirthlin poll had offered a pro/con debate about the survey's validity (mostly con), the Caddell poll was subjected to no critical scrutiny. None of the anti-control statistics were quoted, nor were any spokesmen for opposing views questioned. The article did disclose the source of the data more fully than most papers did, "the Center for the Study and Prevention of Handgun Violence," and also identified "Pat Caddell, President Carter's pollster."[62] The New York Times printed the A.P. story.[63] The Washington Star ran a shorter version,[64] but did later print two letters critical of the poll; one letter, from the Citizen's Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, cited the DMI study.[65]

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote its own article, which led with fact that "84 percent of Americans favor stringent handgun control and registration." The study was conducted by the CSPHV, which was "a non-profit educational and research group."[66]

V. EVALUATION OF THE PRESS COVERAGE

Small newspapers differed greatly in their approach to the gun control polls. Some offered an uncritical pro-gun perspective; some showed extreme bias against guns; and others produced careful, incisive analysis.

The coverage of the polls in the larger papers was often flawed. To be sure, some flaws were not the result of bias. For example, it is true that pro-gun facts from the Caddell study were rarely mentioned, and that Cambridge Research/Caddell was almost never identified as a "liberal" organization. One should remember, though, that anti-gun facts from the Wirthlin study were also rarely mentioned, and that Decision-Making Information's conservative slant was never detailed. While Wirthlin was never identified as a conservative pollster, Caddell was sometimes identified as a liberal pollster -- perhaps because of his greater prominence. Given the fast-breaking pace of daily journalism, it is certainly excusable for reporters not to read the full results of an opinion survey, or to analyze the survey carefully enough to find results that contradict the sponsor's goals. Likewise, the failure to identify Cambridge Research or DMI may spring more from ignorance than from prejudice.

Other parts of the media coverage did seem to reflect a serious bias. The Cambridge poll was treated as an accurate reflection of real public opinion, with headlines such as "Poll Reports Huge Support for Gun Control." The DMI survey was treated as an aberrance to be explained away, with headlines such as "A Contradictory Gun Poll." The Caddell poll had been released on the eve of a major House vote on gun registration, and many of the headlines focused on the issue of registration. "Record Support Tallied for Gun Registration," was typical.[67] Headlines of the DMI study often mentioned the NRA as the sponsor, as in "NRA Poll Says Voters Would Reject More Gun Controls." Only rarely did headlines even mention the Center.[68] No headline or story identified the Center as an anti-handgun interest group. In fact, the only publication that has come to my attention which identified the CSPHV as a gun control lobby was The National Journal, which discussed: "...one poll commissioned by the National Rifle Association and one poll by the pro-control Center for the Study of and Prevention of Handgun Violence."[69] Since both polls were conducted by lobbying groups directly interested in gun control, it was wrong for the media to discuss one group's claims so much more skeptically than the other group's claims.

Perhaps the reason the NRA was treated more harshly than the Center was its greater recognition level. Reporters simply might not have known that the Center for the Study and Prevention of Handgun Violence was an anti-gun organization. Nevertheless, the timing of the Center's release indicated an obvious attempt to influence an upcoming vote on gun control, and the survey was conducted by a close advisor of a President whose administration had proposed the new controls.

In short, close analysis of coverage of the two polls indicates that many elements of the American print media are biased in favor of gun control, so much so that they distorted stories on the subject of public opinion polling of gun control attitudes If this conclusion is correct, the next logical step is to what motives the media might have had for its slanted coverage of the public opinion polls.

VI. WHAT OPINION POLLS MEAN TO THE MEDIA

Despite the release of the Caddell poll and its claims that voters would support pro-control candidates, the B.A.T.F. registration effort was crushed by a 314-80 vote in the House of Representatives.

The National Coalition to Control Handguns newsletter explained the defeat: After "modest regulations" were proposed, the NRA launched "an unprecedented campaign. "Having misinformed the membership, the NRA created "a barrage of mail to the Department of the Treasury." Next, NRA leaders "turned to their Congressional allies," who circulated resolutions of disapproval in the Congress. Hundreds of Congressmen co-sponsored the resolutions and dozens of Senators." The House Appropriations Committee came down on the NRA side 38-3. In the end, "eighty courageous members of Congress stood up in support of the crime controls. Three hundred fourteen members followed the NRA line and voted against them."[70] The next story in the NCCH newsletter dealt with the Caddell study, undertaken by the CSPHV, "a Philadelphia-based research and educational organization. "It announced that "Public concern about handgun violence is so strong" that voters would back anti-handgun candidates by a 49-21% margin.[71] Yet somehow, concluded that article, Congress "does not reflect the feelings of its constituencies."

The mainstream press agreed with the anti-gun lobby that Congress had failed to implement the will of the people. Reuters wrote a feature which discussed a study by "Cambridge Reports" and concluded that NRA power had thwarted the will of the majority of Americans who favored gun control.[72] The New York Post -- which almost never gives op-ed space to viewpoints with which it disagrees -- ran an essay by Rep. Abner Mikva that chastised Congress for caving in to a mountain of mail in opposition to BATF's proposed regulations. Rep. Mikva cited the Center's study for the proposition that the majority of voters really did favor stricter gun controls.[73]

The Milwaukee Journal condemned eight members of the Wisconsin House delegation (six of them Democrats) who had voted against the gun control legislation, and praised the one Wisconsin Democrat who had voted in favor. "The odd thing about all this is that poll after poll finds a majority of the public -- including a lot of gun owners -- consistently favoring firearm control laws far more sweeping than the rules proposed by Treasury." The CSPHV and Patrick Caddell had found 49% of the public was "much more" or "somewhat more" inclined to vote for candidates who favor handgun controls." Thus, the letter-writing powers of the NRA were just "paper bullets" that might "bamboozle 314 House members (including Wisconsin's hard-ducking eight) but the public apparently isn't fooled."[74]

The Louisville Courier-Journal warned: "Gun Lobby's Fanaticism May Backfire." It explained: "a large constituency exists among the victims of handgun violence. Because their lives have been directly affected by these guns, they should have the zeal and commitment equal to that of the gun lobby."[75]

Similarly The Tennessean cited the Cambridge poll in an editorial urging President Carter to go over the head of Congress, and appeal directly to the American people for stronger gun controls.[76] An op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Daily News made the same point.[77]

Did the N.R.A. extremism backfire? Did the public strike back at its unrepresentative representatives? Hardly. In 1980, a life member of the NRA was elected President. After a handgun assassination attempt against him, that President signed into law the most significant relaxation of federal gun control in history, the McClure-Volkmer Firearm Owners Protection Act.[78] That legislation was enacted in part because the NRA membership had ousted officers considered too accommodating, and had elected a more "extreme" anti-control leadership, dedicated to rollback rather than containment.[79] Although the Caddell study had "proved" -- and the press had agreed -- that the voting public was ready to elect pro-control candidates, just the opposite happened.

One explanation for the discrepancy may be the way the Caddell survey was conducted. Attitudes about gun legislation were queried only after a long series of preparatory questions discussing the horrors of gun accidents and domestic shootings. It may be that once citizens are emotionally energized about the dangers of handguns, they will adopt an active pro-control position, as the Caddell respondents did. Most voters, though, are not so energized. Given the real-world facts of handgun death, the attitude of most voters is understandable. Drowning accidents claim many more lives than do handgun accidents. Bicycle accidents kill four times as many children as gun accidents do. A sizable fraction of the people who are murdered by handguns in domestic/acquaintance quarrels are themselves felons, hard drug abusers, or others on the very fringes of society -- not regular voters. Thus, despite optimistic claims about a large constituency of politically active handgun victims, such a group is very small. It is dwarfed by the number of people who enjoy guns for sport, or who believe that their guns protect them.

With all due deference to the political genius of editorial writers, incumbent politicians -- like 8/9 of the Wisconsin delegation -- know more about getting elected than do editorial writers. Congressmen read their mail, and they follow the election returns of their pro and anti-gun colleagues. When they look at direct election results, they see Massachusetts(!) and California defeating anti-handgun bills by landslides. In addition, since 1978, several states have added a "right to keep and bear arms" to their own state constitutions, always by a vote of at least 70%.The only place anti-gun laws have won at the polls have been in very small jurisdictions like Oak Park, Illinois. Notwithstanding the claims of pro-control pollsters, the pro-gun stance seems to gain many more actual votes than does a pro-control stance. In the real world, polling booths matter; polling organizations do not. As Harry Truman put it: "I think the best poll there is is the count after the election."[80]

Ten years later, the establishment press continues to write stories predicting that the NRA's "extremism" will backfire. Last summer, Newsweek warned that NRA would face a member revolt for opposing plastic gun legislation: "That kind of tunnel vision could damage the NRA more than any gun-control group has managed to do....This time the gun lobby may have shot itself in the foot."[81] A few months later, though, a majority of the United States Senate adopted the NRA's "tunnel vision" and rejected plastic gun legislation.

The possibility that the American public, speaking through their elected representatives, and in direct referenda, might not care for stricter gun control seems impossible for parts of the American media to accept. Almost without exception, when new gun control proposals comes up for a vote in a legislature, or in a polling booth, the proposals are rejected. Yet many elements of the American press cling insistently to the notion that the public shares their fervor for gun control. As long as establishment media can cite the pro-control polls by pro-control pollsters, they can avoid facing one of the unpleasant realities of the gun control debate: in large part, gun control is a contracultural movement, in which the more educated, urban, pacifist segment of America attempts to impose its ideology on a resistant populace. Contradictory polls such as Wirthlin's, and contradictory votes by Congressmen and citizens become the anomaly to explain away. Pro-control polls, such as Caddell's, proclaim that there is no contradiction between the media and the American people; pro-gun polls, such as Wirthlin's, highlight that contradiction, and that may explain why the media is so receptive to the one, and so hostile to the other.


Endnotes

[1]. The Center was founded by Milton Eisenhower in 1968. As the Chairman of The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in the 1960's, Eisenhower had produced a report urging for substantial tightening of gun controls.

[2]. The proposed regulations would have: 1. Required manufacturers to use a unique serial number on every firearm; 2. Required manufacturers and dealers to promptly report thefts to the B.A.T.F.; and 3. Required quarterly reports to the B.A.T.F. of all sales by gun manufacturers, importers, and dealers.

[3]. An Analysis of Public Attitudes Toward Handgun Control, A10, A12 (June 1978).

[4]. James Wright, Peter Rossi, Kathleen Daly, Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America 217 (New York: Aldine, 1983).

[5]. Id. at 220.

[6]Id. at 145.

[7]Id. at 148.

[8]Id. at 235.

[9]Id. at 237.

[10]Id. at 235.

[11]Id. at 236.

[12]Id. at 236.

[13]Id. at 239.

[14]Id. at 239.

[15]Id. at 240.

[16]Americans Oppose Gun Control Laws, N. Las Vegas Valley Times-News, June 29, 1977; Americans Oppose Gun Control, Newport, (Tenn.) Plain Talk, May 16, 1977 (circ. 7,581); Americans Oppose Gun Laws, American Fork (Utah) Citizen, Jun 9, 1977 (circ. 1,800); Oppose Gun Laws, Provo (Utah) Herald, June 14, 1977 (circ. 23,212); Gun Controls: Not Effective, Salt Lake City Sunset News, June 7, 1977 (circ. 6,118) (the Sunset News is not one of Salt Lake's two major dailies); Americans Oppose Gun Laws, Fallon (Nevada) Eagle Standard, June 29, 1977 (circ. 2,906); Nationwide Survey on Gun Control Released, Murray (Ky.) Ledger & Times, Apr. 6, 1978 (circ. 7,397).

[17]Poll Shows Opposition to More Gun Controls, Ardmore, Okla. Ardmoriete, Mar. 23, 1979 (circ. 12,935).

[18]More Gun Regulations Opposed, The Gulf Times, Mar. 21, 1979.

[19]Corry Journal, reprinted in As Others See It: Anti-gun Control?, Salamanca (N.Y.) Republican-Press, Mar. 28, 1979; Gun Control Issue, Ridgway (Pa.) Record, Mar. 10, 1979 (circ. 3,753); Gun Control Issue, The (Scranton, Pa.) Evening Times, Mar. 13, 1979, 3.

[20]Brandt, Another Public Poll on Crime and Gun Control, The Chronicle, Apr. 26, 1979.

[21]Do Americans Really Want Gun Control?, Tenn. Out-of-Doors, Jan. 1977

[22]Survey Shows 76 Per Cent Against Handgun Ban, Jim Peterson's Outdoor News, Feb. 20, 1976, 3.

[23]Kruse, Right of Gun Ownership Backed in Poll, Everett (Wash.) Herald, Apr. 27, 1979 (53,000 circ.; Seattle metro area); "Outdoor Recreation Writer").

[24]Bob Brister, NRA gets bigger, tougher on gun laws, Houston, Texas Chronicle, May 22, 1979 (circ. 322,762); Putnam, Outdoors in Hanford County, Bel Air (Md.) Aegis, Mar. 22, 1979, 4 (Baltimore metro area)

[25]Some examples: After the Washington Post ran its own editorial claiming that polls showed the vast majority of the public to favor gun control laws, a letter to the editor in reply ran from the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which cited the DMI poll. John Snyder, 'God, Guns and Guts', Wash. Post, Mar. 8, 1980. Similar letter from ordinary citizens in Eardley, Gun 'Opinions' Aren't 'Truths', Grand Rapids, Mich. Press, Mar. 23, 1979 (circ. 125,545) (citing 1975 Poll).

In April 1979, a nationally-syndicated New York Times feature story detailed how President Carter had backed down on gun control, even though "most surveys reportedly have shown that a majority of Americans support gun control legislation..."Letters to the editor took issue with the statement that the public backed gun control, and cited the DMI poll. Carlson, Gun Control, Minn. Trib., Apr. 18 1979.

New Orleans' Times-Picayune ran a series of letters on the gun control issue. The first letter touted the DMI study and disparaged the Center's study. A reply letter from Handgun Control Inc. noted that the NRA, which had paid for the DMI study, had failed to ask questions about handguns alone, in order to produce a particular result. The NRA was give a sur-rebutter. Firearms Laws Are Futile, The Times-Picayune, Mar. 9. 1980, written in reply to Orasin, Controlling Guns, Feb. 11, 1980 (V.P. of H.C.I.), written in reply to letter of Jan. 12, 1980.

[26]John Lofton Jr., Killing Not Only Purpose, Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, Jan. 20, 1978, 4 (United Feature Syndicate); Lofton, Purpose of handguns, Greenwich (Conn.) Time, Jan. 19, 1978; Killing Is Not the Only Purpose of Handguns, And If It Were, Is All Killing Equally Deplorable?, Battle Line (Am. Conservative Un.), Mar. 1978, 23.

[27]Kates, Handgun Control: A Different View, Field & Stream, May 1978 (reprinted from Inquiry).

[28]Phillips, Are gun control laws the answer?, Bost. Her. Am., June 11, 1977;New Gun Laws Opposed, Rushville (Ind.) Republican, June 13, 1977.

For a non-syndicated columnist, see John Geiser, NRA-Sponsored Survey Says Gun Control Law Not Answer, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Mar. 25, 1979 (circ. 96,092).

[29]Ashbrook, Gun Control, Human Events, Oct. 29, 1977, 19.

[30]Herzberg, Polls Still Find Voters Opposing Gun Controls, The Spotlight, Mar. 26, 1979.

[31]GAO Study Urges Congress to Impose Strong Gun Controls on Nation, The Weekly Bullet, Feb. 13, 1978.

[32]Oliver, Washington Report, Guns & Ammo, June 1979, 7.

[33]News Release, Mar. 8, 1979.

[34]NRA poll says voters would rejects more gun controls, Tucson Citizen, Mar. 30, 1979 (circ. 64,788); Paul releases poll on gun ownership, Houston Post, Apr. 13, 1979 (story on Rep. Ron Paul, who also released results) (circ. 303,447).

[35]Gun Action Expected in 1977, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dec. 31, 1976, 11A.

[36]Kelly, A Gun For Self-Defense Isn't Always Worthwhile, Ariz. Rep., Oct. 2, 1983, C1.

[37] Survey shows Americans see no need for new firearms law, The Daily Dispatch, Mar. 12, 1979.

[38] Poll Shows No More Gun Control Laws Needed, Manchester, N.H. Sunday News, Mar. 18, 1979 (circ. 63,518).

[39]Chicago Sun-Times, reprinted in, Backers of Gun Control Open Fire on Survey Funded by Rifle Association, The Louisville Times, Mar. 9, 1979, A6.

[40]Wright, Under the Gun, supra note 4, at 232.

[41]A Contradictory Gun Poll, Roanoke Times & World-News, Mar. 17, 1979 (circ. 65,412).

[42]Gun Control: Strong Feelings, Roanoke Times & World News, Mar. 20, 1979.

[43]Powerful Reputation Makes National Rifle Association a Top Gun in Washington 39 Cong. Q. 799, 803 (Mary 9, 1981).

[44]A.O. Sulzberger Jr., Rifle Association Poll Says Majority Oppose More Gun Legislation, N.Y. Times, Mar. 10, 1979.

[45]Wright, Under the Gun, supra note 4, at 220.

[46]Most Americans Support Gun Control, Poll Finds, N.Y. Times, June 4, 1978, 33. See also Firearms Control Has Wide Backing: Gallup Survey Finds 67% Favor Gun Registration, N.Y. Times, June 5, 1975.

The Times seems to engage in similar headlining tactics on other policy questions. See Real-Estate Group Poll Finds Many Support Development. ("A New York City real-estate trade group said last week...") N.Y. Times, Feb. 7, 1988; and New Poll Finds Wide Support for Abortion Rights. ("Broad public support for preserving the right of women to obtain abortions remains undiminished seven years after Ronald Reagan came to office on a strong anti-abortion platform." The actual results of the poll, however, showed that only 39% support the abortion laws as lenient as the current laws. The article also stated, "50 percent of those polled said that women under 18 years old were 'more likely' to have abortion; in fact only about one-quarter of all abortions are obtained by teenagers." But since teenagers constitute less than one-quarter of all fertile women, they are indeed more likely to have abortions.) N.Y. Times, Jan. 21, 1988, A18.

[47]Carter's Pollster Issues Pro-Gun Control Poll, The Weekly Bullet, June 12, 1978.

[48]Is Congress Really in the Gun Lobby's Holster?, Weekly Bullet, Oct. 28, 1980.The article's contention that the public is unfamiliar with current laws seems correct. Wright, Under the Gun, supra note 4, at 232.

[49]Newest anti-gun poll shows expected stats, Gun Week, June 16, 1976.

[50]Phillips, Gun Control Polls Are Misleading, Human Events, July 8, 1978, 16; Anti-Handgun Poll Mostly a PR Job, San Antonio Light, June 18, 1978, 8-N.

[51]Knox, Gun Control Plans Miss the Point: It's Abuse, Not Simply Possession, San Diego Union, June 24, 1979, C-7.See also, Guns Thwart Crime, Albany (Ga.) Democrat Herald, July 7, 1981 (in letter to editor, NRA officer cites CSPHV to show that handguns used by 4.8 million people for self-defense); M. Ayoob, The Truth About Self Protection 376-77 (1983) ("A recent Pat Caudell [sic] poll indicates that, in 1981, some 3.8 million Americans has used a gun for self defense. Very few of them got shot. Very of them had to shoot anyone else, either.") (Ayoob is author of several books on self-defense, and is director of The Lethal Force Institute, a New Hampshire school that trains police and civilians in self-defense techniques.)

[52]Jerry Ahern, One Gun Owner's Advice to Ann Landers, Guns & Ammo, Aug. 1979, 33.

[53]Field & Stream, Nov. 1978.

[54]Mann, Our Endangered Tradition, Field & Stream, Jan. 1979, 12.

[55]Gun control has two sides, Phil. Inquirer, Feb. 21, 1979 (letter to the editor).

The editorial debate persisted for years. Two years later, the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune published a pro-gun letter which, inter alia, attacked the Center's study. In return, a supportive letter was Handgun Control Inc. was printed. Controlling Guns, The Times-Picayune, Feb. 11, 1980.

[56]Americans Want More Effective Handgun Controls, Survey Shows, Crime Control Dig., June 12, 1978, 7.

[57]Around the Nation, LEAA Newsletter, Aug. 1978, 5.

[58]Tonso, The Media and Gun Control: A Case Study of World-View Pushing, presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, Montreal, Canada, March 28, 1987.

[59]Poll Shows Gun Control Favored, Wash. Post, June 4, 1978.

[60]Americans favor gun control, poll finds, Chr. Sci. Mon., June 16, 1978.

[61]U.S. Gun Control Favored in Poll, Boston Globe, June 4, 1978.For other full versions of U.P.I., see Poll: 70% Back U.S. Control of Handguns, Baltimore News American, June 4, 1978; 70% favor handgun control: Poll, The Terre Haute Tribune-Star, June 4, 1978.

[62]Record Support Tallied for Gun Registration, The Virginia Pilot and the Ledger Star, June 4, 1978, A5.Shorter versions of the story in: Poll: Gun Control Favored, San Antonio Express-News, June 4, 1978; Handgun Registration Favored, Says Survey, Cinn. Enquirer, June 4, 1978; Poll finds majority favor gun registration, Balt. Sun, June 4, 1978; Poll reports huge support for gun control, Poughkeepsie J., June 4, 1978.

[63]Most Americans Support Gun Control, Poll Finds, N.Y. Times, June 4, 1978, 33.

[64]Registration Acclaimed: Most Back Handgun Control, Survey Says, Wash. Star, June 4, 1978.

[65]Polls Can Show Anything, Wash. Star, June 13, 1978.

[66]Holton, New poll shows 84% favor tougher gun laws, Phil. Inq., June 3, 1978.

[67]It may be that the papers simply printed the story in nearly the same form that the CSPHV and Cambridge fed it to them, and that registration was featured first.

[68]The only one I have found is Center Says Public Wants Gun Control, Charleston S.C., June 4, 1978.

[69]Polls: Does the Gun Lobby Thwart Public Opinion?, 39 Natl. J. 800 (1981).

[70]"NRA Congress" Vetoes Carter Crime Controls, NCCH Washington Report, June 1978.The headline implies an interesting view of the Constitutional process, as if convincing the President to initiate a proposal should be seen as the most important step, subject only to a "veto" by Congress. Perhaps this backwards view of the Constitution stems from the fact that gun controllers can often capture the sympathy of a President or his Attorney General (as occurred in the Johnson, Ford, and Carter administrations), but can almost never command a Congressional majority.

[71]Poll Reveals Overwhelming Public Support for Handgun Control, id.

[72]Keirnan, Americans Firmly Attached to Their 'Shootin' Irons', L.A. Times, July 12, 1978, 2.

[73]Abner Mikva, How the gun lobby shot down the latest bid to curb crime, N.Y. Post, Oct. 18, 1978.

[74]Chickening Out on Handguns, Milwaukee J., June 12, 1978 (circ. 338,597).

[75]Gun Lobby's Fanaticism May Backfire, The Courier-Journal, June 8, 1978.

[76]Politics of Gun Control, The Tennessean, Apr. 17, 1979.

[77]Leon Katz, Wanted: Strict Gun Laws, Phil. Daily News, July 26, 1979.

[78]Significant pro-gun action was also taken by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, which, in a bipartisan report, adopted the NRA's view of the historical record and concluded that the second amendment's original intent was the protection of the individual's right to bear arms. U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, The Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 97th Cong., 2d sess. (D.C.: G.P.O., 1982).

[79]The Gun Lobby, 39 Cong. Q. Weekly Report 781, 801 (May 9, 1981) (According to a NRA board member, "The membership did not want to be 'reasonable' anymore." Three of the NRA's top five lobbyists resigned, because the new leaders "don't feel you have to compromise on anything.")

[80]Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "A Critique of the Scientitic Hope," reprinted in Robert Allen Skotheim ed., The Historian and the Climate of Opinion, p. 192 (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969).

[81]Battle Over the Plastic Gun, Newsweek, June 1, 1987, at 31.The article also stated: "The NRA last year lost the fight over the armor-piercing slugs, as well as its effort to permit private ownership of machine guns." In fact, the NRA helped draft the current armor-piercing bullet legislation (after opposing a broader bill); and private ownership of machine guns is perfectly legal in the United States; recent legislation merely banned the sale of new machine guns.

 

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