H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net  

 

Chapter 11. Politics

All public opinion polls have to be interpreted with some caution. Polls elicit opinions, and it takes a sophisticated study to determine how important or firmly held these opinions are to respondents. As a general rule people feel more strongly about things that affect them personally. There have been gun control referendums in the United States where polls indicated that the new law would pass but when the vote came it failed (Kleck 363). "Some evidence suggests that pro-control opinion may be more weakly held than anti-control opinion. Gun control supporters, when asked in surveys about the intensity of their views, provide responses indicating that they hold their views about as strongly as do opponents. However, when researchers tested these claims by inquiring whether Respondents actually did anything tangible to act on their opinions, such as writing a letter to a public official or giving money to an advocacy group, opponents were three times as likely to report doing something like this as were supporters (Schuman and Presser 1981, Kleck 364)"

Kleck goes on to say, "...gun owners make up the majority of gun control opponents, and gun owners believe themselves to have far more at stake personally in the gun control debate than non-owners. Those who own, enjoy and/or rely on guns believe they could personally lose something very valuable if restrictive gun control is implemented, either immediately or as a result of escalation in controls following initially moderate controls. On the other hand, most supporters could, at best, enjoy only the uncertain and collectively shared benefits of the less dangerous environment that might result from gun control. Concrete and immediate personal costs motivate behavior more strongly than abstract shared benefits that may or may not materialize sometime in the future, and this principle will operate regardless of whether there is an organization that is efficient at mobilizing gun owners."

For the past decade, Canadians have tended to "vote the rascals out." Government after government has fallen because they made themselves unpopular with sections of the electorate. Winning parties have frequently assumed that they were chosen, and legislated on that assumption, rather than realizing that they were not so much selected as the previous government was rejected. They have discovered the error, frequently, in the next election.

Superficial readings of public opinion polls have been a key element in encouraging those in power to act arrogantly. Because the government enjoys a high level of general popularity, legislators feel that they can enact laws that discomfit segments of the population with impunity. This assumption is probably correct, once or twice, but as additional sectors of the population are annoyed the effect tends to be cumulative. Many public policies appear from polls to be popular with the voters in the abstract, but produce enormous resentment among some in the particular. Public opinion supports, or has supported, the return of the death penalty (69%, Angus Reid, Montreal Gazette, 10 Jul 95, p. A5) , free trade, the GST, cuts to government services, reduction of the deficit, and gun control. When governments enact legislation on the basis of these general sentiments they often find that they have made implacable enemies in a significant portion of the population. The general support the government perceived is like a fog - it appears solid from afar, but very thin close in.

Gun control is an excellent example of the pitfalls encountered when governing by poll. Since few people know the current laws, and many are concerned by crime and the misuse of firearms, a majority is always in favour of "stricter" gun control. When new laws are enacted and have minimal effect on crime, violence, suicide or accidents, some will probably still be in favour of "stricter" gun control because nothing visible has happened. Others may become disillusioned as they come to realize that gun control does not produce the expected results. For the minority, who bear the burden of complying with the new laws, the laws are a constant irritant and reminder that they have been, in their view, singled out for discriminatory treatment. Few votes are swayed toward the government for enacting ineffective laws. Many, though not all, of those who have been burdened by the law will vote against the government that passed it. Only if all parties are equally strong in their support for the law will it have no electoral consequence.

Gun owners, being a small and not always unified segment of the population, do not by themselves decide elections. They can constitute a swing vote. In a multi-party democracy governments are frequently elected by a minority of the electors. The hostility of 15% of the population can be significant, if it is not countered by equivalent numbers who favour of the policy. The negative effects of stricter gun control for governing parties have been frequently noted, the positive effects rarely, if ever, noted.

Politicians who feel strongly that a policy is right, and that they are doing the statesmanlike thing in passing an unpopular law for the general good, may be vindicated by history. They may also destroy their party.

When this survey was taken in January 1995, elements of the gun control law, such as registration, were probably at the peak of their popularity. In the battle between the forces of good and evil, as cast by the media, the government was taking on the powerful gun lobby. Registration was to be cheap, simple and greatly desired by the Chiefs of Police. When the next election comes it will not be so popular. There will be financial burdens supported by all the taxpayers and (more significantly) by gun owners. The Chiefs may be heard to complain that they have not received the necessary resources, the media may have discovered some injustices in the application of the law, and there may be the perception that the law is ineffective. (Note: in the election of 2 June 1997 much of the law had not yet been brought into force)

Voting in the 1993 Federal Election

This analysis started by looking at the way people said they voted in the last federal election.

Q26. Which party did you vote for in the last federal election?
Responses Number Percent
Liberal 491 32.6
Bloc Quebecois 88 5.8
Reform 102 6.8
NDP 85 5.6
Progressive Conservative 129 8.6
Other 26 1.7
Did not vote 267 17.7
Don't know/Refused 318 21.0
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

As this survey was not designed to focus exclusively on politics, only a few questions were asked, and there was no follow up (as in an electoral survey) to determine the "leaning" of people who refused to answer.

The regional distribution of the last vote is well known. The Liberals were strong in the Atlantic provinces and Ontario. The Bloc Quebecois was only strong in Quebec. Reform was strongest in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia. The Conservatives had a low level of support across the country, while the New Democratics only had real support in the West. The variations between rural and urban ridings, men and women, and different age groups were not particularly significant. As usual, people with lower incomes were less likely to vote at all, but when they did they were more likely to support the NDP than better off voters.

The Reform and Conservative parties were more likely to be supported by gun owners than non-gun owners, while the Liberals were more likely to be supported by non-gun owners. Those who "know" the gun law were more likely to have voted for Reform , and less likely to vote for the Liberal Party than those who do not know the law. Those who favoured "Right and Hunt" values were somewhat more likely to support the Reform and Conservative Parties, while those who oppose them were somewhat more likely to support the Liberals or the Bloc. The small number of respondents who spontaneously mentioned gun control as a method for reducing violent crime supported the Liberals. Those who think gun control ineffective were more likely to support the Reform Party, but there were no strong associations for the other parties. Interestingly, those who think gun control effective were significantly less likely to vote at all. The Liberals were slightly more likely to get the votes of those who favour registration, but these people were also least likely to vote. The Reform Party benefitted strongly from the votes of those who are opposed to registration. Of those who say they favour confiscating all handguns a remarkable 27% did not vote.

Importance of Gun Control

After respondents had spent 10 minutes or more answering up to 25 questions about firearms and gun control, they were asked, "When voting in a federal election, how important to you are the candidates' positions on gun control?" Obviously, even for people who had never given a thought to gun control, the issue had been made salient by the questionnaire. If the question had preceded all the others and been phrased, "what issues are important to you," the results would have approximated those in the first question on the "most important problem facing Canada," and economic issues would have been prevalent. Asked, as it was, after talking about gun control for several minutes, and with no competing issues having been raised, respondents naturally responded that gun control was an important issue.

Q27. When voting in a federal election, how important to you are the candidate's positions on gun control?
Responses Number Percent
Very important 280 18.6
Somewhat important 557 37.0
Not very important 375 24.9
Not at all important 219 14.6
Don't Know 74 4.9
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

Given the bias created by the placement of the question, it was necessary to analyze differences between those who said that the candidates' positions on gun control were "very important" to them, versus those who said "somewhat," "not very," "not at all important," or "don't know." No doubt the question placement bias still exists - many who said "very important" might not have thought of it spontaneously. Yet. among those who said it was, there were some for whom it is really true.

Respondents in Ontario are most likely to say candidates' positions are "very important" (22%), and those in the Prairie provinces the least likely to say so (15%). People in rural and urban areas are slightly more likely to think it important than people in small and medium sized cities, but not significantly so. Women (20%) are slightly more likely to think it very important than men (17%), and older people (22%) are slightly more likely to think it important than younger people (17%). Respondents with less than high school levels of education (22%) are significantly more likely to think the candidates' position on gun control is very important, than are those who are university graduates (13%). Those with lower incomes (24%) are much more likely than those with higher incomes (15%) to think it very important.

Both those who strongly favour and those who strongly oppose hunting are more likely to think the candidates' position very important than those who are somewhat in favour or somewhat opposed to hunting. Those who say they are "very" familiar with the current law are considerably more likely (37%) to think it "very important" than those who are less familiar (17%). Those who spontaneously mentioned gun control as a method of reducing violent crime were also much more likely to say it was "very important" (29%) than those who did not mention gun control (18%). Both those who think gun control is effective, and those who think it ineffective, are more likely to think it very important than those who are not so certain. The same pattern is found concerning opinions on registration - those with strong opinions for and against it are both more likely to think it important than those who are "soft" on registration. Those who favour confiscating all handguns think gun control "very important" (26%). These results indicate that gun control is a polarizing issue which is important to those who feel strongly on both sides. In some ways it is similar to opinions on abortion.

Voting for Pro-Registration Candidates

In the last election Canadians did not get a chance to vote on firearms registration, it was not part of the platform of any of the parties. In the next election it is unlikely that they will get a chance to vote on it as an issue by itself. Individual candidates do not have much say in government policy, it is the party leadership that decides. Aside from ridings that are either very pro or very anti-registration a rational candidate will temporize, say ambiguous things that will not offend either side, and later claim that he or she had to support the party, tailoring the message to the specific audience. Thus the next question has to be considered hypothetical. Most Canadians will never be give a clear choice of options on registration to vote for or against. The question was also asked at a specific period in the debate when very optimistic projections of cost and ease ruled the day. How Canadians, in general, will react after the complexities become apparent (as happened with the Goods and Services Tax), is not predictable from responses to the question, "Would you be more inclined or less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured registering all firearms?" The reaction of those who will have to register their guns is somewhat more predictable.

Q28. Would you be more inclined or less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured registering all firearms?
Responses Number Percent
More Inclined 774 51.5
Less Inclined 233 15.5
The Same 415 27.6
Don't Know 83 5.5
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

Overall, a slim majority (51%) say they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who favours registration. This is highest (56%) in Ontario, and lowest in the Prairie provinces (42%). People in large cities are significantly more likely to say they would vote for such a candidate (58%) than are people in rural areas (44%). Women (56%) are more likely to say they would vote for such a candidate than are men (47%). Almost twice as many men (20%) would vote against such a candidate as women (11%). Younger people are significantly more likely to say they would vote for such a candidate (62%) than older people (42%). Older people are more than twice as likely to say they would vote against such a candidate (22%) than younger people (10%). People with less than high school education are less likely to vote for, and more likely to vote against such a candidate than are people with more education.

Though most Canadians will never get the chance to vote for or against registration as an isolated issue, it is likely that those who favour it for largely intellectual reasons, will not be inclined to vote for a candidate who supported registration. Those who oppose it have more visceral and personal reasons to vote against such a candidate.

Voting on Handgun Confiscation

Confiscation of private property is not popular with Canadians. While few understand the process of "confiscation-in-place" used in the Criminal Code through prohibition and grandfathering, the idea of confiscation itself is repugnant to many.

Q29. Would you be more inclined or less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscating handguns from their lawful owners?
Responses: Number Percent
More inclined 403 26.8
Less inclined 654 43.5
The same 338 22.4
Don't know 110 7.3
Total Responses 1,505 100.0

Overall, about a quarter of Canadians said they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscating handguns, while 43% said they would be less inclined.

Only in Quebec do more people say they would more inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscation (31%) than say they would vote against (26%). Confiscation is more popular in large cities, opposition is more concentrated in rural areas. A majority of men (52%) oppose confiscation, while fewer women (36%) do. Still, more women would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscation (36%) than would be inclined to vote for such a candidate (31%). Younger people are more inclined to vote for, and older people more inclined to vote against a candidate who favoured confiscating handguns. High income respondents are significantly more likely to vote against a candidate who favoured confiscation (47%), than are lower income respondents (37%).

Gun owners, obviously, are not in favour of confiscation, but only 29% of non-gun owners would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured it. Of those with "Right and Hunt" values , 63% would vote against a candidate who favoured confiscation, while 49% of those with "No Right No Hunt" values would support such a candidate. A majority of those who are "very" familiar with the law (69%) would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscating handguns.

Those opposed to registration would vote against confiscation, while only a minority (41%) of those who favour registration under any scenario would be inclined to support such a candidate. Those who think gun control ineffective would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured confiscation (68%), while among those who think it effective only 45% would be more inclined to vote for such a candidate. Obviously those who favour confiscating all handguns would vote for such a candidate (73%), while those who oppose confiscation would vote against (62%). Confiscation of handguns is an exceptionally divisive issue.

Values, Perceived Effectiveness, and Strength of Vote Intention

In order to see how strongly respondents would support or oppose a candidate who favoured registration or confiscation, the questions on the importance of gun control and voting intentions were combined. If a respondent said they would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured registration (or confiscation) they were categorized as "ANTI". If they said the candidates position was "very" important they were categorized as "VERY ANTI"; "somewhat" important were listed as "SOME ANTI", and "not very important," "not at all important," and "Don't know" responses were grouped as "LEAN ANTI." Those who said the candidate's position on registration (or confiscation) would not influence their vote, or who did not know if it would make a difference, were categorized as "NEUTRAL," regardless of how important they thought the candidate's position on gun control was. The "PRO" responses were categorized in the same way as the "ANTI".

Creation of Indices of Strength of Support Towards Candidates who Support Registration or Confiscation
  Q 27. When voting in a federal election, how important to you are the candidate's positions on gun control? Q 28. Would you be more inclined or less inclined to vote for a candidate who favoured registering all firearms (confiscating handguns)
Support Index Very Somewhat Not & DK Less Same & DK More
Very Anti X     X    
Some Anti   X   X    
Lean Anti     X X    
Neutral X X X   X  
Lean Pro     X     X
Some Pro   X       X
Very Pro X         X

Two separate indices of Strength of Attitude were created, one based on responses to the registration question, the other on responses to the confiscation question. These were then analyzed to see what effect basic values and the perceived effectiveness of gun control would have on voting intentions in the two cases. Within all categories of basic values, for both indices, the perceived effectiveness of gun control was strongly and significantly correlated with voting intentions. Those who perceived gun control as ineffective would vote against candidates who support either registration or confiscation, those who perceived gun control as effective would vote for such candidates.

Strength of Attitude towards Candidates who Support Registration, by Perceived Effectiveness, by Basic Values
    Perceived Effectiveness of Stricter Gun Control
Basic values Strength of attitude toward candidate: Not

Effective

Neutral Is

Effective

Total

Percent

Right and Hunt Very Anti 17% 2% 4% 9%
  Some Anti 11% 5% 1% 7%
  Lean Anti 16% 11% 1% 11%
  Neutral 34% 39% 23% 34%
  Lean Pro 11% 14% 17% 13%
  Some Pro 7% 22% 30% 16%
  Very Pro 4% 8% 24% 9%
  Col% 100% *101% 100% *99%
  Row% 45% 40% 16% *101%
  n = 237 209 83 529
Mixed Very Anti 2% 2% 1% 2%
  Some Anti 10% 3% 2% 4%
  Lean Anti 10% 4% 4% 6%
  Neutral 50% 42% 22% 37%
  Lean Pro 13% 19% 13% 16%
  Some Pro 12% 20% 37% 24%
  Very Pro 3% 9% 21% 12%
  Col% 100% 100% 100% *101%
  Row% 22% 44% 34% 100%
  n = 131 270 208 609
No Right, No Very Anti 0% 2% 3% 2%
Hunt Some Anti 3% 3% 0% 2%
  Lean Anti 3% 3% 1% 2%
  Neutral 46% 27% 18% 25%
  Lean Pro 22% 26% 12% 19%
  Some Pro 19% 28% 45% 35%
  Very Pro 8% 11% 21% 16%
  Col% 100% 100% 100% *101%
  Row% 10% 43% 47% 100%
  n = 37 158 174 369
Total Responses Row% 27% 42% 31% 100%
Total Responses n = 405 637 465 **1,507

* Totals may not equal 100% because of rounding.

** Total Number of Cases may not equal 1,505 because of weighting.

Strength of Attitude towards Candidates who Support Confiscation of handguns, by Perceived Effectiveness, by Basic Values  
    Perceived Effectiveness of Stricter Gun Control
Basic values Strength of attitude toward candidate: Not

Effective

Neutral Is

Effective

Total

Percent

Right and Hunt Very Anti 22% 7% 13% 14%
  Some Anti 20% 23% 18% 21%
  Lean Anti 37% 24% 13% 28%
  Neutral 15% 29% 31% 23%
  Lean Pro 3% 7% 17% 5%
  Some Pro 2% 9% 30% 6%
  Very Pro 1% 3% 24% 3%
  Col% 100% *102% *99% *100%
  Row% 45% 40% 16% *101%
  n = 236 208 83 527
Mixed Very Anti 5% 4% 5% 5%
  Some Anti 24% 13% 16% 16%
  Lean Anti 31% 20% 11% 20%
  Neutral 31% 39% 30% 34%
  Lean Pro 5% 6% 7% 6%
  Some Pro 2% 11% 18% 12%
  Very Pro 0% 6% 14% 7%
  Col% *98% *99% *101% 101%
  Row% 22% 45% 34% *101%
  n = 131 271 207 609
No Right, No Very Anti 3% 1% 3% 2%
Hunt Some Anti 5% 10% 0% 7%
  Lean Anti 16% 16% 1% 10%
  Neutral 45% 37% 18% 32%
  Lean Pro 16% 13% 12% 11%
  Some Pro 16% 14% 45% 24%
  Very Pro 0% 10% 21% 13%
  Col% *101% *101% 100% *99%
  Row% 10% 43% 47% 100%
  n = 38 158 174 370
Total Responses Row% 27% 42% 31% 100%
Total Responses n = 405 637 465 **1,506

* Totals may not equal 100% because of rounding.

** Total Number of Cases may not equal 1,505 because of weighting.

Given these results it is quite clear that the "effectiveness myth" underlies political support for gun control. If C-68 is seen as not producing significant reductions in violent deaths, then a significant reduction in support for gun control can be anticipated. It may well be that the principal reduction will be among the "Right and Hunt" and "Mixed" value positions; those with "No Right No Hunt" values may call for even stronger measures, such as total confiscation of firearms.

Conclusions

At the time the survey was administered, the idea of registration was popular. Now the response of many of those who supported it is likely to be, "thanks, but what have you done for me lately?" The response of those who have to comply with it is likely to be a vote for a candidate who will get rid of registration.

Confiscation is clearly a losing issue. C-68 has already infuriated about a half million Canadians and the numbers are growing. Also, citizens are becoming relatively inured to political obfuscation and it tends to affect their voting habits; C-68 may prove to be indefensible.

The perceived effectiveness of gun control was found to be the basis of political support for gun control legislation. Should the new law come to be perceived as ineffective a dramatic reversal in public support is a possible result.

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H. Taylor Buckner, Ph.D. - Consulting Sociologist P. O. Box 320, South Hero, VT 05486 (802) 372-5236
Home Page E-Mail: taylorbuckner@earthlink.net