Opinion: A political center in gun rights debate
The conventional wisdom says Americans are highly divided over gun rights and gun control. But is it true? Recent data from the 2019 Kansas Speaks poll suggests that there is a political center on this issue after all.
Political scientists have argued for years that Americans are not as divided as portrayed in the news media. In the book “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” Morris Fiorina and colleagues found that most Americans staked out centrist positions even on supposedly divisive issues like abortion rights. The perception that the country is deeply divided on this and other issues comes not from rank and file voters but rather from political activists. It is the latter group that is highly polarized. The activists are more likely to be frequent voters. They also cast many of the votes in party primary elections, participate in caucus meetings, donate money and volunteer time to candidates, all helping to reinforce the idea that their sharp divisions mirror the nation’s. Among other voters, survey results show that most believe abortion should be legal but with certain restrictions. These include a ban on late-term abortions except under extenuating circumstances, no use of federal funding and parental consent for minors. Earlier Kansas Speaks surveys have shown similar results for Kansas.
This year, a similar pattern appears in responses to questions about guns. A majority of the poll respondents appear highly receptive to laws restricting who can buy guns but much less supportive regarding bans on which guns, ammunition and accessories can be sold.
Unfortunately, Kansas Speaks, like many surveys these days, cannot be taken at face value. This is because of a pronounced tendency for Republicans — particularly supporters of outspoken candidates like President Donald Trump and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — to refuse to take the survey and/or acknowledge how they voted. Approximately 31% of Kansas Speaks respondents reported supporting Kobach for governor in 2018, but his actual vote total was 43%. This does not mean that the survey is biased or rigged. Respondents were selected at random, but pollsters cannot control refusals.
Poll data is often “weighted” these days, to adjust for these differences. I applied my own crude adjustment. I added together the total percentages who “strongly support” or “somewhat support” various gun control laws, then reduced the total by 12%, which is the percentage by which Kobach supporters were under-counted in the poll. Kobach was endorsed by the NRA and stressed his opposition to gun control during the campaign.
My adjusted numbers show a clear pattern. Even with my downward adjustments, a majority of Kansans favor background checks (76.1% support) and bans on gun sales to those determined to be dangerous (73.5% support), convicted of violent misdemeanors (61.7% support), or under 21 years old (56.7% support). Most (60.1%) also favor a three-day waiting period to purchase a gun. The percentages drop significantly for bans on the types of guns or accessories sold — my weighted numbers show only 46.1% in favor of banning high-capacity magazines and only 39.8% in favor of banning assault-style weapons.
If there is a political center in the gun debate, it would appear the majority is much more supportive of restrictions on who can buy a gun than on which guns and accessories can be sold. Perhaps — as with abortion rights — there is a political center on this issue after all, notwithstanding the passionate opinions of activists on both sides.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.