For the past several weeks Senator Dianne Feinstein (D – California) has been promising to release details on her bill to ban the sale of certain cosmetically offensive, but otherwise normally functioning, semi-automatic rifles. A semi-automatic firearm fires only one round per trigger pull (just like a revolver), unlike automatic firearms, also called machine guns, which fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down.
Feinstein says she is targeting something she calls “assault weapons.” Gun owners say she is targeting “modern sporting rifles” and have already fired a preemptive volley at Feinstein’s plan through a White House petition captioned “Stop any legislation that will ban ‘assault weapons,’ semi-automatic rifles, or handguns and high capacity magazines.”
The petition quickly overran the 25,000 signature mark requiring the President to respond. Subsequently today Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) announced he would actively oppose any ban on so-called “assault weapons.” “I own an AR-15 and I have done nothing wrong by owning the gun . . . armed security . . . is a better way to [protect school children],” Graham told The Hill.
Many news reporters and pundits continue to erroneously conflate so-called assault-rifles with machine guns, implying that certain semi-automatic rifles are functionally different than say garden variety pistols. For example, see this video of New York City Mayor Bloomberg (R) telling ABC Nightline News reporter Cynthia McFadden that “pistols are different, you have to pull the trigger each time; an assault weapons you basically hold it go brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp!”
To her credit, McFadden paused briefly to roll her eyes before deadpanning, “no, those are fully automatic.”
Many Americans have been misled on what the term “assault weapon” means, perhaps explaining the wide differences in polling regarding proposed bans on so-called “assault-weapon” based apparently upon how the question is asked. Self-proclaimed “unabashadly liberal” blogger Pat Cunningham explained as follows:
“Ten days ago, Daily Kos commissioned Public Policy Polling to field a poll on a variety of topics related to guns. One of the simplest questions we asked—just eight words long—was this: ‘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.
. . .
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.”
Both polls were presumably conducted objectively and the differences in opinion were statistically different in each poll, despite the diametrically opposed results. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the poll which explicitly defined “assault weapons” as “semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles” found less support for, and more opposition to, a ban on so-called “assault weapons.”
Feinstein has now released tentative details of her cosmetically offensive rifle ban here. Her gun-ban scheme is a pretty simple style test which “[s]trengthens the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and various state bans by: Moving from a 2-[military] characteristic test to a 1-[military] characteristic test” but allowing the tens of millions of existing modern sporting rifles to remain in circulation provided that their owners submit to biometric registration and pay a $200 tax.
Now imagine if a polling organization asked Americans an even more clear and precisely defined question about Finestein’s plan to ban “assault weapons” as follows:
“Are you for or against a law which would ban rifles which fire one shot per trigger pull if such rifles were equipped with a single military-style feature such as pistol grip?”
Surely the support for such a plainly cosmetically offensive ban would be even lower than the Gallop poll’s 44%. After all, polls consistently show that Americans broadly support the right to own pistols (74% in the most recent Gallop poll ) and all pistols naturally have, well, a pistol grip, begging the obvious logical question –
why is it OK for semi-automatic pistols to have pistol grips, but not semi-automatic rifles, even rifles like this columnist’s Baretta Storm carbine which fires the same 9mm pistol ammunition as his Baretta 92F pistol?
A politically important aspect of polling is often not just the policy choice most voters favor, but which side of the issue has the most “ardent supporters,” i.e., single issue, or near-single issue voters. Some polls provide an indication of which side of an issue has the most single-issue voters – people potentially willing to spend money and time to “primary” an elected official who votes the wrong way” on an “ardent” issue such as gun rights.
Online polls for example – where anyone can vote – can provide just such a window into the tug of war between ardent supporters, those people who spend a lot of time tracking an issue closely and willing to bother to vote in online polls and encourage their fellow “ardents” to join them. And early this morning a new US News and World Report online poll gave us some insight into how the ardently anti-gun and pro-gun groups measure up.
That poll asked online respondents the following question: “Should the assault weapons ban be reinstated?”
1.7% of respondents said yes. 98.3% said no.
And as the day wore on, the pro-gun side was widening its lead.