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Does the Great American Gun Debate Even Exist?

Does the Great American Gun Debate Even Exist?


In Gun Fight, Adam Winkler defines the “Great American Gun Debate” as consisting of two opposing parties, the gun grabbers and the gun nuts, that have fundamentally different ways to solve the gun problem in the United States. The gun grabbers would prefer a position similar to that in the United Kingdom, in which all handguns are banned and long guns are uncommon.[1]  Gun nuts believe armed citizens could act as a preventative factor for violent crime, as criminals would be less likely to commit a crime if they feared getting shot in the process. And despite being extremes, these parties are supported by powerful players, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) for gun nuts and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) for the gun grabbers. Winkler insists that, until this point, the debate has been polarized: you are either pro-gun or anti-gun.[2] However, a gun policy survey done by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) indicates that there is a consensus on opinion and policy recommendations: majorities support 11 of the 14 proposed measures to regulate guns and promote gun safety.[3] To argue that a consensus of opinion in a 12-year old study nullifies the existence of a gun debate in America would be unrealistically optimistic. Because of how the wording of a question can affect responses, more analysis and study must be done before we can accept the existence of uniform agreement in gun policy recommendations. While the District of Columbia v. Heller case sets a legal precedent for both gun ownership and regulation, the social scientific and political landscapes are more turbulent and volatile, with frames and political ideology creating a rift in what may be a theoretical consensus in gun policy.

To some extent, Heller settles the legal battle by directly addressing the second amendment concern for the first time since United States v. Miller. In Heller, Scalia defines a clear constitutional right to a gun for protection, at least inside of the home.[4]  But it also allows for limitations on gun rights: “shall not be infringed” is no more absolute than the “Congress shall make no law” of the first amendment.[5] Winkler takes an optimistic point of view, arguing that setting a legal precedent could pave the way for a middle ground in opinion and policy.[6]

The NORC data seems to suggest that there is already a middle ground that centers around a consensus of opinion in policy recommendations for gun control and safety. In a representative sample that over-sampled gun owners, 88% of respondents say that gun buyers should take a mandatory training course before buying a gun. 79%  agree that a police permit should be required before a gun can be purchased. 77.5% think background checks for private sales would be a good idea. 77% would support the mandatory registration of handguns.[7] These are huge majorities. This data is a policy-maker’s dream.

The NORC data it alone cannot prove a true consensus, and even if it did, there are complications between reporting of opinion and actions taken. First, this study was funded by the Joyce Foundation that was accused of supporting anti-gun groups in the past and has gone on to provide funds to MAIG.[8] It is possible that research subjects might have been more likely to agree with the policy recommendations because they sensed a bias and wished to be please the experimenter. The phrasing of questions greatly changes the kind of responses you receive.  In a study by Slovic et al. (1980), risk and lethality assessments of potential forms of death vary greatly depending on the phrasing of the question. The subjects judged the lethality of heart attacks by responding to one of the two phrasings: “For each 100,000 people afflicted, how many died?” or “for each person who died, how many were afflicted but survived?” When the rates were converted into estimates per 100,000, the average estimate between the two groups varied by a factor of nearly 100.[9] In risk assessments, which our justifications for gun policy are, phrasing has a very strong impact on our response. While the NORC phrasing doesn’t seem to mislead on its face, we might see weaker results if the questions are worded differently. Finally, this study was published in 2001 – pre-9/11, and before the War on Terror. Since then, perhaps gun policy attitudes have shifted towards the defending-your-territory philosophy of the gun nuts. Or perhaps Americans are now even more willing to enact precautions before arming someone. This is a topic for further study.

But even if we assume that the majorities of opinion exist, the reality of the bipartisan gun debate is unchanged. Decisions about gun safety laws have to do with an assessment of risk. Drawing from another example of risk assessment, despite understanding proper use, the consequences of non-use, and the judgment that condoms are “good”, reported condom use is low.[10] So too might be the case with gun policy: people’s actions in the voting booth or other methods might not reflect their opinions in a vacuum-like, theoretical setting.

If there were such a strong majority in opinion, we would expect that some suggestions with the most support would make it into policy in the 12 years since the study was published. But, for the most part, this has not happened. Despite a reported split opinion in the NORC study, policy surrounding shall-issue concealed carry laws have been going in one direction, with the number of states implementing such laws increasing four-fold from 1986 to 2013.[11]

In a study focusing on concealed-carry laws, Heider-Markel and Joslyn found that frames play a large role in people’s opinion on policy and their attributions of blame.[12] Perhaps the reason why policy and voting opinion lag behind the numbers of the NORC study is that there is not a good time to push gun regulations. Gun control and safety is highest on the priority list after a national tragedy, like the shooting in Sandy Hook. But at those times, enacting some of the more reasonable gun policies (like gun safety training before a gun purchase) does not seem like an appropriate response to such an event. When the hype of such an event dies down and the threat of gun violence is less accessible in our minds, we might tend to see the issues as they are framed by our political party, and support for an issue is severely impacted by the frame provided. Heider-Markel and Joslyn found that on a scale of 1-7 from strongly oppose to strongly support, the support for concealed handgun laws changed from 2.5 when the frame was about public safety to 3.5 when the frame was about individual rights.[13] This issue of framing brings us away from the NORC study on opinion and into the larger issue of the gun debate.

These frames, party politics, the two sides of the Great American Gun Debate intertwine in a way that is hard to disentangle. The frames used to analyze gun policy can divide people in a way that the NORC questions do not measure. Those divided parties then enhance and reinforce the frames to support their views and other interests, creating a cycle of information based on ideology rather than fact. Kahan et al. (2013) even found that “subjects’ likelihood of correctly identifying the correct response varied in relation to the subjects’ political outlooks when the experiment was styled as one involving a gun-control ban,”[14] meaning that people will disregard their mathematical abilities and rely on ideologically motivated reasoning when making decisions about these issues. 

The framing and politicizing of these issues may be responsible for why the consensus of opinion in the NORC data has not translated to practical policy solutions. Experts on both sides use the same evidence to prove their ideology: in More Guns Less Crime, John Lott assumed that the null hypothesis proved his argument, despite this being contrary to standard statistical practice.[15] Michael Bellesiles is accused of falsifying data in order to show that gun regulation is more common in American history that previously assumed.[16] The consensus of opinion needs to be confirmed by further study, but it seems like the practical opinion on guns is still divided by the frames presented and the political messages of inclusion and fear implied in the decision. In such a way, these frames are divisive enough to create a split in opinion, create the Great American Gun Debate, where there might not be one in the theoretical formulation of the NORC study.


[1] Winkler, A. (2011). Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. New York: Norton.

[2]See 1.

[3] Smith, Tom. (2001). “2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings.” National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Chicago, IL.

[4] District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 56 (2008).

[5] U.S. Const. amend. I and U.S. Const. amend. IV

[6] See 1.

[7] See 3.

[8] "Gun Violence Prevention Grantees." The Joyce Foundation, 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. Available at


[10] Catherine MacPhail & Catherine Campbell. (2001). ‘I think condoms are good but, aai, I hate those things’: condom use among adolescents and young people in a Southern African township. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 52, Issue 11. Pg 1613-1627 (

[11] Dege, J. (2008). Progress in Right to Carry. Retrieved from

[12] Haider-Markel, Donald P. And Mark R. Joslyn. (2001). “Gun Policy, Opinion, Tragedy, and Blame Attribution: The Conditional Influence of Issue Frames.” The Journal of Politics v63 n2: 520-543.

[13] See 12.

[14] Kahan, D., Dawson, E., Peters, E., Slovic, P. (2013). Motivated Numeracy and Self-Government. Yale Law School, Public Working Paper No. 307.

[15] Papachristos, A. & Meares, T. (2013, October 9). Guns in the United States. Lecture conducted from Yale University, New Haven, CT.

[16] Papachristos, A. & Meares, T. (2013, September 4). Guns in the United States. Lecture conducted from Yale University, New Haven, CT.