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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

President Obama in Tune With Public Opinion at Wednesday Press Conference

President Barack Obama's statements about Americans and attitudes toward gun violence at his Wednesday press conference were well-informed by recent polling information.

The president's main objective was to announce the formation of a task force on reducing gun violence, headed up by Vice President Joe Biden. The president was very careful throughout his speech to note that there are multiple causes of gun violence in addition to the central focus of many: gun control laws. In particular, he mentioned in the first minute or two "access to mental health," and "a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence."

Later in his speech, Obama said, "any single gun law can't solve all these problems. We're gonna have to look at mental health issues. We're gonna have to look at schools. There's gonna be a whole range of things that Joe's group looks at. We know that issues of gun safety will be an element of it ... "

In fact, in a quick-read Gallup poll conducted Tuesday night, the top three action steps Americans indicated would be most effective in preventing future school shootings were increased police presence at schools, more government spending on mental health screening and treatment, and a focus on reducing media and video game emphasis on gun violence.

All three actions came in ahead of a ban on assault weapons on the list of the six actions tested, suggesting that Obama is in sync with public opinion with his broad focus on many causes of gun violence, including, but not limited to, gun control.  

Obama did get specific about public opinion when he narrowed in on gun control. He said that a majority of Americans support: a) banning the sale of military-style assault weapons, b) banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, and c) laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases.

These assertions are correct, at least based on available data.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll of 602 respondents conducted Friday through Sunday showed 52% support for "a law requiring a nationwide ban on semi-automatic handguns, which automatically re-load every time the trigger is pulled." This isn't exactly the same thing as "military-style assault weapons" Obama mentioned, but in the same neighborhood. A CNN/ORC poll from last summer found higher support (57%) for a "ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47," although the question was asked in the context of a question root focusing explicitly on actions that had been proposed to reduce gun violence. Other polls have found similar support, varying depending on question wording.

Support for banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips is above the majority level in the ABC News/Washington Post poll and in previous polls. Support for background checks is very high in all polling I have seen.

Obama went on to say, "like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual a right to bear arms." That too is in line with available data. A 2008 Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans believed that the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution "guarantees the rights of Americans to own guns" as opposed to a belief that it only "guarantees members of state militias such as National Guard units the right to own guns."

The real key going forward for those focused on efforts to prevent future mass shootings is to remain cognizant of Americans' collective opinions about the efficacy of all of the various actions that can be taken. Obama certainly was well-briefed on recent polling before his press conference Wednesday, and he was following public opinion when he emphasized that Vice President Biden's task force would be looking at a wide variety of actions that could be taken to reduce gun violence.

We are updating our long-term Gallup trend on gun control, and by next week, we'll have a read on how much the terrible incident in Newtown has changed it.

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