After the mass shooting in Oregon last week, President Obama called on Americans to make gun control a key issue when they go to the ballot box.
It’s not going to happen. Americans are split over gun control, but they’re united in their apathy toward toward guns. Both those who want gun control and those who don’t talk as if the issue is important, but when they’re alone, the issue is of little importance.
This is one result from the 2012 American National Election Study. The study finds that people are inclined to tell other people that the issue is important, but this may not reflect how they really feel.
The ANES had a unique feature that gives us a window into the politics of gun control. The survey was administered in two ways. Some people were interviewed face-to-face; interviewers went to people’s homes to ask them questions. Other people were interviewed through a web survey. The questions were the same. The only difference was how people were asked the question.
In a face-to-face interview, people face what is known as “social desirability.” There’s a real person asking the questions and listening to the answers. This can change how people answer questions.
It’s not that they necessarily lie or hide their “true” opinions. But having another person listening and reacting sometimes shades how people answer questions in ways that doesn’t happen when people are alone, answering questions on a computer.
People don’t change their opinion toward gun control because of social desirability. Those in the face-to-face and web surveys were equally for/against gun control. In both surveys, respondents were evenly split between wanting government to decrease access to guns and keeping the status quo.
But when the survey followed up with a question on how important the issue was to them personally, the two surveys found very different results.
In the face-to-face survey, there is clear majority who claim that gun control is an important issue. Nearly a third (31 percent) of respondents said that the issue was “extremely important” to them personally. Another 30 percent said it was “very important.” Americans, it appeared, cared a lot about gun control.
The results were strikingly different for the web survey. Only four percent of those taking the survey online said the issue was “extremely important.” And only 17 percent said it was “very important.”
It’s tempting to conclude that people are lying when they’re talking to interviewers in person. That’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to think of how talking to someone else changes how the person thinks about the issue at that moment. People may sincerely think of the issue as important when they’re in a conversation. Alone, however, the issue is less important. There are no social pressures to say that the issue is important.
This is disappointing results for the president and others who want others to vote based on the issue. The voting booth is a lot more like the web survey. A voter is alone and anonymous. Chances are, voters won’t find gun control as important there, even if they tell people it is.
It is also bad news for gun rights groups. The drop in importance wasn’t just for gun control advocates. Those who wanted to keep the status quo or make guns easier to buy were also much less likely to say the issue was important. Most Americans on both sides of the issue may care far less about guns than they let on.