In the weeks following the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, most of this country's major pollsters have surveyed Americans on their opinions of initiatives proposed to prevent another tragic mass shooting. The differences in their results are revealing and shed light on the messaging goals and challenges for each side as the debates over the limits of gun ownership and school security reach Capitol Hill.
In aggregate, the polls show support for key parts of President Obama's package of gun laws, but the NRA-backed proposal to increase security in schools is also popular.
Meanwhile, the differences in how the questions are worded are being mined by pollsters and political professionals as the fight over stricter gun laws moves to Congress. Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who has written extensively about polling on gun issues and is part of a bipartisan polling team for the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has lobbied for stricter gun laws, told National Journal that she sees movement for her side in the latest polls post-Newtown.
"I think all those numbers are really showing a big shift," she said. "In each outlet's version [of the question] there's been some movement."
But Omero and other advocates for the types of stricter gun laws the president has proposed have seen specific signs in public and private polling to help them frame their message. Her first piece of advice: Don't call it "gun control."
"We need to scrub the word 'control' from our language," said Omero. "It's just not a good descriptor, and it has a pejorative connotation."
Asked how advocates should refer to their efforts, Omero said, "The easy answer is 'stronger gun laws.' That's how we would talk about any other kind of law."
As for Republicans, as this week’s AP-GfK poll shows, framing the issue as one of Second Amendment rights, particularly with their supporters, is perhaps their most effective strategy.
"Republicans are best advised to talk about Second Amendment rights and freedom," said Republican consultant Curt Anderson.
But Democratic pollster John Anzalone warns that opposition to some of the specific proposals, framed the wrong way, could leave the GOP on the wrong side of public opinion. "The danger for Republican incumbents is going too far, where their statements are outside the mainstream," said Anzalone. "Quite frankly, even in Republican districts, a majority of voters support these measures."
A review of specific public polling questions shows the importance of these rhetorical distinctions. Some pollsters have asked a form of this question, from the most recent AP-GfK poll: "Should gun laws in the United States be made more strict, less strict, or remain as they are?" In both the AP-GfK poll, and a late December USA Today/Gallup poll, 58 percent of respondents said they thought these laws should be made more strict. A CNN/Time/ORC poll found that 55 percent "favor stricter gun laws," while 44 oppose them.
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