Anticipating a public debate over gun control in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, CNN's Bill Schneider, The Politico, and Time's Karen Tumulty all presented misleading reports about the political and public-opinion implications of gun control.
In an April 17 report posted on CNN.com, Schneider falsely suggested that Democrats have avoided campaigning on gun control since their 1994 midterm election losses, noting that then-Vice President Al Gore "rarely talked about gun control during the 2000 presidential campaign" and that "Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate ... defended 2nd Amendment rights." But Schneider omitted any mention of the 1996 presidential election -- the one immediately following those 1994 losses. During the 1996 campaign, President Clinton campaigned on -- and even ran ads touting -- the very same gun-control measures that Schneider says Democrats have run away from.
The Politico ran an April 17 article by reporter Josh Kraushaar that portrayed Rep. Ron Paul's (R-TX) position on gun policy as in step with public opinion. In fact, Paul opposes all federal gun-control laws, a position that places him among a tiny minority of the American public. The Politico referred vaguely to, but did not cite, "public opinion polls and reader feedback at Politico.com" to assert that Paul is "far from alone." In fact, public opinion polls show near-unanimous opposition to Paul's gun policy positions.
In an April 17 post on the magazine's Swampland weblog, Time's Tumulty described as "radical" a policy position -- mandatory registration of all firearms -- that has enjoyed the support of nearly 80 percent of the American public.
Schneider is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose website touts More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2000), a book by former AEI resident fellow John Lott, the widely discredited "scholar" who has been caught using fraudulent data and accused of lying about it and who created the fake online persona "Mary Rosh" to tout his own work.
Schneider's April 17 report about the politics of gun control stated:
In recent years, gun control has been an issue most politicians prefer to stay away from.
The last significant gun control measures to make it through Congress were the Brady bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994.
And what happened? Democrats lost control of Congress for 12 years. President Clinton said the gun lobby had a lot to do with his party's defeat. Democrats have been gun-shy ever since.
Then-Vice President Al Gore rarely talked about gun control during the 2000 presidential campaign. Gore even went so far as to say he wouldn't restrict sportsmen or hunters, "None of my proposals would have any effect on hunters or sportsmen or people who use rifles."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, went hunting during his campaign. He defended 2nd Amendment rights said during a campaign debate, saying, "I will protect the Second Amendment. I always have and I always will."
Schneider's assertions about the Democrats' approach to gun control since their defeat in the 1994 midterm election are misleading at best. Schneider asserted that the party has been "gun-shy ever since" and suggested that, since the 1994 elections, Democratic presidential candidates have avoided the issue. But Schneider's claims are undermined by the fact that, just months after the 1994 elections, President Clinton ran ads for his re-election campaign that touted his support for the very same gun legislation.
In fact, some of those ads can be viewed on CNN's own website. One ad boasted, "President Clinton ... signed a tough law to ban deadly assault weapons." Another ad touted the same ban -- and criticized Clinton's Republican opponent, Sen. Bob Dole (KS), for voting against it. During the July 1, 1995, edition of CNN's Inside Politics, host Wolf Blitzer played a portion of "what many are calling the kick-off to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign" -- an ad that highlighted Clinton's signing of the assault weapons ban. (Schneider gave an on-air version of his online gun report during the April 17, 2007, edition of CNN's The Situation Room. After listening to Schneider omit any mention of Clinton's assault weapons ads, Blitzer simply said, "All right, Bill. Thank you for that report.")
So, while Schneider claimed that the 1994 loss of control of Congress after banning assault weapons caused Democrats to become "gun-shy" about the topic and suggested that Democratic presidential candidates have avoided it, the reality is that just a few months after the 1994 loss, ads for Clinton touted that very same assault weapons ban. And the ban remained popular right up to the Republican Congress' decision to let it expire in 2004. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted at the time found that 61 percent of Americans were "dissatisfied" with the expiration, while only 12 percent were "satisfied."
Schneider went on to claim:
Support for gun control dropping
Public support for stricter gun laws has been declining since the 1990s, according to the Gallup Poll. In January 2007, the number of people who supported stricter gun laws was at 49 percent, less than a majority for the first time since at least 1990.
Again, this is misleading at best.
First, according to Gallup, "Fifty-one percent of Americans in a January 2007 poll say gun laws in the country should be more strict" -- not 49 percent, as Schneider asserted. Gallup also reported finding 56 percent support for making laws governing the sale of firearms more strict. Neither Gallup's April 17 summary of opinions of gun control nor pollingreport.com nor any other source Media Matters for America has found supports Schneider's claim that support for stricter gun laws "was at 49 percent" in January.
More significantly, by (apparently falsely) claiming there was "less than a majority" support for "stricter gun laws," but omitting any mention of the fact that only 14 percent favored "less strict" gun laws, Schneider misleadingly suggested the public is evenly split on the topic. In fact, polling consistently finds a majority in favor of stricter gun control laws, and a huge majority in favor of at least maintaining the laws we have now.
While Schneider asserted that "support for gun control [is] dropping," Gallup seems to contradict him: "Although it is unclear to what degree more rigid gun control laws might have prevented the Virginia Tech tragedy, Gallup's data suggest that the public is, in general, open to the idea of stricter laws governing the sale of firearms and more rigorous enforcement of gun control laws." Gallup also noted that, after a small uptick in support for stricter "laws covering the sale of firearms" following Columbine and a "slight" fall following September 11, "This January's 56% agreement with the 'more strict' alternative is roughly average for the last five times the question has been asked since October of 2003."
Schneider also distorted the opinions of gun owners:
After a shocking incident like the one at Virginia Tech, public anger over gun violence rises. So does support for gun control measures. ... But public anger is not usually sustained very long, whereas gun owners remember every gun control vote as a threat to their rights. Gun owners vote the issue.
Schneider's claim that "[g]un owners vote the issue" suggests that gun owners vote as a monolithic block in opposition to gun control. In fact, polling shows that is not the case:
- A July 1999 CNN/Time poll found that a majority of those who have a gun in their home oppose stricter gun control laws, but 46 percent were in favor. More specific questions found greater support for gun control laws among those with a gun in the home: 64 percent favored the federal government requiring registration of all handguns, and 64 percent also favored mandatory licensing for handgun owners. A slim plurality -- 46 percent to 42 percent -- of those with a gun in the home said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports stricter gun laws.
- An ABC News poll conducted in October 2002 found that 61 percent of gun owners supported "a law requiring every gun sold in this country to be test-fired first so the authorities would have its ballistic fingerprint in case it was ever used in a crime." (Newsweek also polled on ballistic fingerprinting the same month and found that gun owners opposed it by a narrower margin. The argument against ballistic fingerprinting included in the Newsweek poll question discussed concerns about the efficacy of fingerprinting, not the principle of it.)
- In an August 1999 poll, Newsweek found that 91 percent of gun owners favored mandatory waiting periods for handgun purchases so background checks can be conducted, 85 percent supported requiring child safety locks to be sold with all new handguns, 80 percent favored requiring handgun owners to attend gun safety courses, 66 percent supported requiring "all handgun owners to register with the government," 63 percent supported a ban on "the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic assault guns," and a large minority -- 45 percent -- favored requiring "owners of hunting rifles to register with the government." (The poll also found much lower support among gun owners for banning gun shows, penalizing manufacturers whose guns "fall into the hands of children," and banning the possession of handguns.)
Readers of The Politico's write-up of Republican Congressman Ron Paul's claim that the "lack of access" to guns "increases our crime rate" were even more badly misled. The Politico falsely suggested that Paul's opposition to gun safety legislation is in step with public opinion:
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has a simple solution to future shooting massacres such as the one that ripped apart Virginia Tech university Monday: more guns.
Paul, 71, is the kind of lawmaker, and presidential candidate, gun control advocates love to hate at moments like this. And, based on public opinion polls and reader feedback at Politico.com, he's far from alone.
Echoing the views of many Americans, he sees calls for restriction on guns as an affront to freedom.
The Politico article made no mention of any specific "public opinion polls." Nor did The Politico detail the "reader feedback" that supposedly informed the article. Presumably that feedback did not constitute a scientific assessment of public opinion -- and, given the frequency with which readers find their way to Politico.com via right-wing Internet gossip Matt Drudge, The Politico's readership likely skews conservative. Most glaringly, the Politico article did not in any way indicate that "many Americans" -- indeed, the vast majority -- disagree with Paul's opposition to restrictions on guns.
Paul -- who argues in a column on his website that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations, which he claims wants to "undermine Second Amendment rights in America" because "[t]hey believe in global government, and armed people could stand in the way of their goals" -- describes himself as "an opponent of all federal gun laws" and has introduced legislation to "repeal misguided federal gun-control laws such as the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban."
Contrary to The Politico's suggestion that Paul's gun views enjoy wide public support, the vast majority of public polling on the topic has found that the public favors gun control -- often by overwhelming margins. Paul's gun views constitute a fringe position, contrary to The Politico's vague assertion that "many Americans" agree with him.
For example, in 18 Gallup polls listed on pollingreport.com dating back to 1990, the percentage of Americans who favor making "laws covering the sale of firearms" less strict has ranged from a high of 12 percent to a low of only 2 percent.
Time's Tumulty wrote in an April 17 Swampland post:
But in talking to Democrats on Capitol Hill, I'm picking up no enthusiasm for a cause that many have deemed a political loser. Al Gore's relatively modest proposal in the wake of Columbine for licensing gun owners (as opposed to the more radical one of registering their guns) is still widely believed to have been a factor in costing him the election, losing him votes that he might otherwise have gotten from, for instance, gun-owning union members.
Despite Tumulty's description of mandatory gun registration as "radical," polls conducted in 1999 and 2000 found that an overwhelming majority of Americans favored mandatory handgun registration. Gallup/CNN/USA Today found 73 percent in favor in January 2000 and 79 percent in favor in February 1999. Likewise, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in September 1999 found 75 percent in favor of handgun registration. A CNN/Time poll conducted in July 1999 found that 76 percent of Americans -- including 64 percent of those with a gun in their home -- were in favor of "the federal government requiring handgun owners to register each handgun they own with the government."
And a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in June 1999 found that the public's desire for gun registration was not limited to handguns; according to the poll, 79 percent of Americans supported "[t]he registration of all firearms."