Would you support or oppose banning assault weapons?Even though our survey oversampled gun owners considerably, respondents said they favored such a ban by a broad 63-32 margin. Now, you might wonder if the people we polled know what exactly an assault weapon is, what a ban might cover, and whether such a ban would even be effective.
Those are all legitimate questions, but regardless of how well-informed our respondents might be, they stated a preference in response to a simple, clear question—and as we move forward, the public debate on this question will indeed generally be referred to, by politicians and the press, as "a ban on assault weapons." In other words, we framed our question to reflect the rubric people will hear when they tune into the news.
Contrast our approach with Gallup's, which also released some new data on gun issues. Here's their assault weapons question:
Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles?By a 51-44 spread, Gallup's respondents oppose such a ban—which is actually a little tighter than the 53-43 against they found the last time they asked this question (in Oct. of 2011). No matter what, though, that's wildly different from the huge numbers PPP sees in favor of such a ban. So what gives?
Well, frankly, Gallup's question sucks. It's too long, too wordy, and too confusing. As I noted above, for decades, this public policy issue has been described—by supporters and opponents alike—as an assault weapons ban. Everyone knows what the word "ban" means. So why complicate things with legalistic phrasing like "illegal to manufacture, sell or possess"? Normal people don't talk that way. Hell, even abnormal people like Beltway pundits don't talk that way.
The final part of the question is problematic, too. Gallup wants the phrase "semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles" to be interpreted as "the sub-set of semiautomatic guns that encompasses assault rifles." That alone is too verbose and requires too much mental processing. Does it really help anyone to give this extended definition? Put another way: I can think of no good reason to not just say "assault rifles" and eliminate the part about "semiautomatic guns."
But it would also be all too easy for someone to come away with the impression that Gallup is saying "semiautomatic guns, which are also known as assault rifles." In response to that, you might think, "Hell no! 'Assault rifle' is not a synonym for 'semiautomatic gun!'" Or you might think, "Hmm. This proposal sounds way too broad. Now we're calling all semiautomatic guns 'assault rifles?'"
Oh, and one more thing: Why assault rifles? Again, it's always been referred to as an assault weapons ban. No one's ever talked about banning rifles or other long guns used for hunting, so if your mind happened to focus on the word "rifle" instead of "assault," you might think the questioner was asking whether hunting weapons should be made illegal.
Even if you think all these various chains of thought are ridiculous or stupid, well, it's just very easy for one human to misunderstand another—especially a stranger calling on the phone who's trying to get through an interview as quickly as possible. That's why pollsters should always strive for maximal simplicity when they ask questions. That's not always possible—sometimes you can't get useful data without first offering a bit of explanation—but even then, there are better ways to do so on this topic than the way Gallup did.
But I don't think extra verbiage is necessary at all here—as demonstrated by the fact that a mere five percent of respondents to PPP's question said they were undecided. "Assault weapons" is a phrase people have heard (and, lately, have heard all too often). And whether people have a perfect understanding of the matter or not, citizens are allowed to express their opinions. You could try to craft a question which offered more background on what an assault weapons ban might mean, but Gallup certainly didn't do that.
What they did, instead, is cloud the issue with a confusingly-worded question. If they'd adopted the phrasing we instructed PPP to use, I bet they'd find similar numbers to what we saw. And that's a broad majority in favor of a ban on assault weapons.