WaPo/ABC poll: Enthusiasm drops for gun-control legislation -- but why?

Context matters, and so does polling consistency. The Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in 2018 after the Parkland mass shooting demonstrated a peak of enthusiasm for gun-control laws, 57/34. Three years later, that has shifted sixteen points in the gap, 50/43. So what happened?

Support for prioritizing new legislation to reduce gun violence has declined from a high in 2018, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, although the share of people preferring to prioritize laws to reduce gun violence still outweighs the share saying protecting the right to own guns should be prioritized.

And there is public support for such policies. The Post-ABC poll finds 50 percent of Americans support enacting new laws to reduce gun violence, down from a peak of 57 percent after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Just over 4 in 10, 43 percent, of Americans say protecting the right to own guns should be a bigger priority, up from 34 percent in 2018.

First off, we can be reasonably sure that this context isn’t germane. The Post and ABC almost tripped over themselves getting this poll done after a series of similar events in the last few weeks, as their next paragraph notes:

The poll comes after several mass shootings this year, including those that left eight dead at Atlanta-area Asian spas, eight dead at an Indianapolis FedEx warehouse and 10 dead at a Colorado grocery store. President Biden has faced pressure to pursue stricter gun laws and policies, and this month he announced executive actions, including new rules on guns assembled at home and actions to make it harder for unqualified people to obtain firearms. Biden also pledged to push for sweeping changes to the country’s firearm laws, though any new legislation will face tall odds in a closely divided Senate.

And yet, that seems not to have mattered at all. If that “pressure” was broad, we would have seen similar numbers as in 2018, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen “strong” support shifting between the poles. That, however, is precisely what this poll demonstrated:

Most Americans hold strong views on the issue, but the balance of those views appears to have shifted in the past three years. Today, 42 percent of Americans say that they “strongly” believe that enacting new laws should be a priority, while 38 percent say they strongly believe that protecting the right to own guns should be prioritized. In 2018, strong support for enacting new laws outpaced strong support for protecting gun rights by 50 percent to 31 percent.

42/38 would be within the overall margin of error in this poll, and the MoE would likely be even higher for these subgroups. It’s essentially a tie, when three years ago the difference between the poles was nineteen points. One has to assume that the Post and ABC are disappointed that their rush to poll in the immediate aftermath of a few mass shootings didn’t provide a clear message of support for more gun laws.

This demonstrates a serious issue with the Post/ABC polling strategy, as well as their intellectual honesty. The true way to poll over time on an issue is to do so at regular intervals, not when the mood strikes. Gallup and Pew do regular-interval polling on public issues, which are not driven by current events and launched in what seems to be an attempt to manipulate people through the polling equivalent of ambulance chasing.

That’s not the only issue of honesty in this presentation, either. The chart in the WaPo article lists only three data points over eight years, although the lines in the chart hint at a fourth — one in which it appears that protecting gun rights had a slightly higher priority. Why weren’t those data points listed on the chart?

Either someone flunked line drawing in elementary school, or the Post doesn’t want us to see the specifics of a poll that appears to have been taken in 2016. Their analysis refers repeatedly to the 2018 and 2013 surveys, but they never mention a fourth poll where those lines converge.

Nevertheless, at least they reported on this poll and the dramatic loss of enthusiasm for more gun laws. It’s still at 50/43, but in a D+9 poll (33/24/35), it’s probably not entirely reflective of the population as a whole. (Worth noting: that’s the biggest D/R gap in the WaPo/ABC polling in at least a year.) In a polling series over time, even one as problematic as this series. the shift is too big to ignore. Despite the gains made by Democrats in 2018 and 2020, this cuts directly against their arguments of a groundswell of public support for their agenda.

So why has there been such a loss of enthusiasm for gun control? We’d know better if the WaPo/ABC polling units committed to proper interval polling on public opinion, but it’s likely due to the Democratic embrace of “abolish/defund the police” sloganeering and a sharp rise in crime, especially violent crime, over the past year. If we’re abolishing or rolling back police departments, then self-defense becomes even more crucial as crime rises. Democrats are trying to argue two entirely contradictory points at the same time — that only cops should have guns, and that we shouldn’t have cops.

Small wonder that voters have grown less enthusiastic about disarming Americans in the mess that Democrats created over the past year. By this time next year, the Post’s chart will have to sport yet another trend-line convergence with no listed data points.

Update: My friend Chris Field at The Blaze tried to get an answer about the missing 2015 polling data. Judge for yourself whether he succeeded: