Polling Society addresses gun control

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • January 31, 2013

Spencer Kimball discusses poll results.
Spencer Kimball discusses poll results.

Coinciding with the ongoing debate about reducing gun violence on Capitol Hill, the Emerson College Polling Society released a survey Jan. 24 showing that most Americans support stricter firearm control laws.

The study of nearly 1,300 registered voters found that 55 percent support more rigorous legislation to limit access to guns, while only 12 percent favored loosening existing restrictions. The results, which have a 2.6 percent margin of error, are available at emersoncollegepollingsociety.com.

“For the most part, people are for some, but not all of the proposed gun control measures,” said Grey VanDeMark, the club’s president and a senior political communication major.

According to the poll, 60 percent of Americans support a ban on assault weapons — defined by the survey as automatic or semiautomatic rifles designed to store 10 rounds of ammunition — and 58 percent approve of prohibiting magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

But the measure that had the most support was background checks for all prospective gun buyers, which were favored by 83 percent of respondents — including 65 percent of the National Rifle Association members that were polled.

“The polls actually show that whether you are a Republican, whether you are a Democrat, or even an NRA member, you still support universal background checks,” said Felix Chen, a junior communication studies major. Chen, the group’s chief analyst, is tasked with finding patterns from the polls’ raw data.

The club decided to conduct the survey over winter break in response to the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“We didn’t want to ask the poll too early because [the shooting] was too fresh right at the end of [last] semester, so we waited until the beginning of this semester,” said Kimball. 

Questions for the study were finalized on Thursday, Jan. 17, according to Kimball, and the polling society gathered responses that weekend.

“Right now, it’s a hot button issue,” said Kimball, “so it’s important for legislators to take advantage of this opportunity if they want to change gun policy.”

Support for stricter gun control measures appeared more tepid among respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, with 37 percent calling for stricter laws, 27 percent for more lenient laws, and 40 percent undecided. But these results, cautioned VanDeMark, may not be representative of all young adults, since the poll only reached 52 respondents in that age category.

“It’s really hard to get the 18-29 year old demographic to respond to these surveys,” he said.

The most significant finding from that group, according to Kimball, was that 64 percent opposed restrictions on violence in video games and other media. Overall, only 29 percent of respondents disagreed with limiting such video games.

Kimball said that the club is interested in getting more responses from young adults, and may pursue other polling mediums besides the telephone.

“It’s a very difficult demographic to get, which is why online surveys are growing in popularity, because it reaches that demographic,” said Kimball. “We hope to move into that category so we can get more younger responses, but at this point, the majority of our responses are 30 and older.”

The poll also showed a sharp divide in opinion between genders. While 69 percent of women favored stricter gun control laws, only 41 percent of men did. The Polling Society did not offer an explanation for this split.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have an exact cause and effect for why men or women would have a particular attitude toward gun policy,” said Kimball.

While gun control is still a prevalent topic in the media, the survey showed that public attention may not be lasting. Only seven percent considered this the most important issue facing the country, while 30 percent thought unemployment was the most significant problem.

“People definitely really care about this, but it’s not their priority,” said Chen. “They want to know if they can support their family, put food on the table.”

The club expects to conduct polls every three or four weeks, and while the next topic hasn’t been officially decided yet, ideas include the race in Illinois to replace former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., and the upcoming vote in Massachusetts to fill former Sen. John Kerry’s seat.

“I know the group is planning on taking a look at electoral politics,” said Kimball.

Kimball said the group also plans on conducting a poll in March or April to see if sentiment regarding gun control changes.

“There will be a lot of discussion,” said Chen, “but it’s hard to determine how far the public will want to go.”