Howard Schuman asks:

Why is it that public opinion has so little effect on the specific issue of requiring police permits to buy a gun?

His answer involves responses to this question, which was asked of respondents in a 1978 poll and then again in 2011:

Would you favor a law which would require a person to obtain a police permit before they could buy a gun, or do you think such a law would interfere too much with the right of citizens to own guns?

The two surveys differ in mode—e.g., the 2011 survey was carried out by a combination of live interviewers and recorded voice calls—so it is difficult to make comparisons over time.  Suffice it to say that in both surveys, majorities favored the requirement.

More important, however, is the intensity of opinion.  Consider this question:

Compared with how you feel on other public issues, are your feelings about permits for guns: extremely strong, very strong, fairly strong, or not strong at all?

Here is a graph plotting the percentage who said “extremely” or “very strong”:

By this measure, those who favor gun permits are equally intense (1978) if not more intense (2011) in their opinions.  But things change when respondents were asked a different question:

How important is a candidate’s position on permits for guns when you decide how to vote in a Congressional election? Is it one of the most important issues, very important, somewhat important, or not too important?

I plotted the percentage who said “one of the most important” or “very important”:

In both 1978 and 2011, opponents of gun permits were, by a small margin, more likely to name this as an important issue.  Thus, the “intensity gap” reverses, favoring opponents.

The last question really illuminates the challenge for gun control advocates.  The survey asked:

Have you ever written a letter [2011: or sent an email] to a public official expressing your views on gun permits or given money to an organization concerned with this issue?

Here is the percentage that reported writing an official, giving money, or both:

Obviously, many fewer people have done this than say that the issue is important.  But opponents of gun permits are far more likely to write an elected official or give money to an organization.  The gap between supporters and opponents is larger in 2011 than in 1978.

Schuman sums this up nicely:

Whatever may the case at the level of subjective “feelings,” self-reported past action—and quite likely mobilization for future action if contacted by an organization such as the National Rifle Association—is clearly on the side of opponents of a gun permit law.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.