“There Appears to Be a Trend Here”

A Quinnipiac pollster on how attitudes toward gun control might actually be changing.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 19: Demonstrators lie on the ground during a 'lie-in' demonstration supporting gun control reform near the White House on February 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. According to a statement from the White House, 'the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system.', in the wake of last weeks shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Demonstrators lie on the ground during a lie-in supporting gun control reform near the White House on Monday.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

After yet another American bloodletting, many on the left are going through our familiar post-shooting ritual of mourning, anger, calls for political action, hope, and defeatism. One inevitable part of this ritual is the release of poll numbers showing that Americans support various forms of gun control, often by overwhelming margins. And yet, here we are.

So, are the polls wrong? Are people lying to pollsters? Is public opinion on this issue more complicated than the numbers suggest? I spoke by phone recently with Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which released a poll on Tuesday about American attitudes toward gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting. This is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Isaac Chotiner: Support for universal background checks is at 97 percent in your poll, even among gun owners. The numbers are 67 percent in favor of a nationwide assault weapons ban. Why is there such discrepancy between these numbers and what we see in Washington, D.C.? Or might things really be different this time?

Tim Malloy: Well, in the last two years, we have seen a jump of nearly 20 percent of Americans wanting stricter gun control laws. So maybe it is creeping up on Washington. There was a groundswell in this poll, a big jump, the biggest we have ever seen in terms of opposition. The short answer is that there appears to be a trend here.

Overall, if not an indictment, this is certainly a critical review of the way the gun laws are right now. Maybe it will get the attention of Washington; maybe it will not.

Are there certain issues where you feel like polling is accurate, but misses the broader picture about the way people feel about the subject? When I see these numbers saying people support some gun control measures, and then they also say they trust Democrats and Republicans pretty evenly on gun control, you begin to wonder. Maybe people say they support background checks because they think it is what pollsters want to hear.

You would know as well as I that human nature is interesting. We are dealing with an unbelievable tragedy in Florida, and young people standing up and speaking articulately on how much they are hurt by it, and saying they are going to vote in the midterms when they turn 18. This is a big one. This is a groundswell we have seen from this shooting. But that’s today. Three weeks from now they might have a different answer.

We try to write the questions clearly, and hit it down the middle as much as we can. We are all former reporters, and terrified of guiding a question. We go over and over a question over and over again.

Have you noticed different levels of support for gun control among people of different ages? It seems pertinent, given how much we are hearing about kids being for gun control now.

Younger people tend to be less inclined to be gun owners, and more inclined to be about gun safety and restrictions on gun ownership. That’s a fact. Has it moved a lot? Very likely, given the fact that we have seen this 20-point swing.

Have any polling changes been among groups that you wouldn’t expect, or does it divide neatly along partisan and regional lines just like everything else?

In the last two months, since Las Vegas, some of the biggest surges in support for tightening gun laws have come from groups you wouldn’t expect. More independents have been for stricter gun control. Men. White men. Americans with no college degree. Not dramatically so, but we have seen a shift. And those are people who you might not expect to be leaning that way. When you see a 20 percent swing, that’s got to include people who normally would not be for tightening regulations on guns.

So when you are writing a question about gun control, what sort of questions, or wording of questions, would you try to avoid?

Saying, “Do you think President Trump cares about the young people that died?” or “Do Democrats care about the lives of these young people?” Those are irresponsible, silly questions because they are too wide open. There are too many ways they could be interpreted. We try to do things that give you no wiggle room on a yes or a no, but still have it be written in an understandable way.

Has the type of gun violence we have seen led to you guys asking different questions in terms of the different types of guns and the different ways gun violence is now perpetrated?

There is a question about assault weapons in the surveys we have been doing since Sandy Hook. It used to be mainly with handguns, but now it’s also long weapons, assault weapons, because most of the killings that we have had, mass murders, have been with long weapons.

Historically, people have sometimes been dishonest with pollsters because they want to signal a certain thing, like church attendance. Is that something you worry about with a subject like gun control?

We call it a moment in time. It could be different a week from now. Sure. You could get a different answer about guns and stricter gun laws than we got in the last three days. There is no doubt about it. So, you have to weigh human nature into all of this.