A Slippery Statement: Clinton on Gun Reform
By Riley Griffin
DURHAM, N.C. — On March 10, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage in a balmy high school gym to rally supporters in Durham, North Carolina. Thrust before a liberal population amidst the conservative South, the former secretary of state took advantage of the opportunity to challenge gun legislation.
“Yes, I will take on the gun lobby,” affirmed Clinton. “There are ways we can do this. Everything I’ve proposed — comprehensive background checks and the like — are supported by 92 percent of the American people and 85 percent of gun owners.”
In this past six months, Clinton has used these numbers during various public appearances, from Late Night with Seth Meyers to the Steve Harvey Show. This overwhelming statistical support for gun reform — from both the general public and gun owners — allows Clinton to appeal to voters beyond party lines.
But do these percentages accurately depict the United States populace? The Support System has investigated Clinton’s statement to gauge its accuracy.
Clinton’s data is derived from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which surveyed the public opinion of 1,446 registered voters nationwide in 2014. Quinnipiac is a self-funded, non-partisan university that conducts surveys by live phone interview in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado and nationally. The Quinnipiac University Poll is often featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reliable news sources.
According to the Quinnipiac University Poll from July 2014, registered voters were asked, “Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?”
The results showed that 92 percent of total responders were in support of background checks for gun buyers, validating the first statistic in Clinton’s statement. However, the Q-Poll showed that 92 percent of gun households are also in support of background checks– a seven-point deviation from Clinton’s claim of 85 percent.
So, what’s the catch? A further look into the Quinnipiac data demonstrates that 86 percent of Republicans supported background checks — a number closer to Clinton’s supposition for gun owners. It appears that Clinton may have conflated the identification of “Gun Households” with “Republicans,” and missed the mark by 1 percent.
Is this an excusable mistake? Yes. Clinton is right, 92 percent of Americans do support background checks — and gun owners also endorse the policy at an extremely high rate. Clinton’s slight misrepresentation of gun owners is not entirely condemning.
Still, Clinton’s statement is not accurate. The Support System finds Clinton’s characterization of data to be misleading — contextualizing the statistics in a way distorts the question and results of this particular Quinnipiac University Poll.
How, you ask? Let’s break it down:
1. Quinnipiac did not poll voters on Clinton’s gun policies.
By preempting the poll results with the words, “Everything I’ve proposed…” Clinton suggests that the Q-Poll evaluated voter opinion in direct reference to her suggested policies. That is not the case. The Quinnipiac University Poll from July 2014 inquired about general background check policy, unspecific to any politician’s personal agenda. There is no political agent in the question, “Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?”
2. Clinton’s gun policies go well beyond “comprehensive background checks.”
Through the vague wording of “background checks and the like,” Clinton implies that every one of her gun policy proposals receives an exact rate of 92 and 85 percent support from the public and gun owners, respectively. “And the like,” allows Clinton to incorporate each of her various proposals under the political catch-phrase, “background checks.”
In reality, Clinton has a nuanced plan for gun reform that goes well beyond background checks. Because the Q-Poll did not assess the majority of Clinton’s suggested gun policies, she cannot claim 92 and 85 percent support for every provision.
On her campaign website, Clinton advocates for complex background check legislation — tightening security for internet sales and gun shows, and closing the infamous “Charleston Loophole,” which allows a gun to be purchased if a background check is not complete within three days. In addition, Clinton vows to hold gun dealers and manufacturers accountable by repealing the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” which provides the industry with legal immunity from victims of gun violence. Finally, Clinton seeks to ban assault weapons from non-military citizens. Ultimately, there is no statistical evidence appraising public support for each of these gun reform policies.
3. Clinton did not account for her suggested gun policies that have been polled.
Clinton also advocates for policy that will prevent domestic abusers, criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining guns. Quinnipiac did gauge public opinion on one detail of this policy by asking voters, “Do you support or oppose laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns?” In response, 89 percent of all voters and 91 percent of gun households supported the law – numbers that do not reflect the exact statistics from Clinton’s original statement and consequently cannot be lopped into the expression “as the like.”
A Nation Concerned By Gun Violence
Although Clinton’s characterization of the Q-Poll data is not entirely accurate, her words testify to widespread concern about gun violence. Since the Sandy Hook shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 there have been nearly 1,000 mass shootings in the United States, according the Gun Violence Archive. In the wake of tragedy, pollsters have surveyed voters in order to assess how the shootings have affected public opinion on gun reform.
From The Washington Post to The New York Times, each poll has come to the conclusion that the majority of U.S. citizens support comprehensive gun reform, statistically ranging from 86 to 92 percent. Unfortunately, not every poll screens for gun owners — so the later part of Clinton’s statement is more difficult to evaluate. Below is a list of reputable polls that have surveyed public opinion on background checks:
The Washington Post polled a national sample of 1,003 adults in 2013, asking “Would you support or oppose a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online?” The Post found that 86 percent of all adults and 86 percent of gun owners supported comprehensive gun reform. Like the Q-Poll, The Washington Post data reveals that gun owners share a similar opinion to general public — in this case, a statistically identical opinion.
CBS News polled a national sample of 1,181 adults in 2013. Posed with the question, “Would you favor or oppose background checks on all potential gun buyers,” 90 percent of adults were in favor. This statistic corroborates the Q-Poll, whose results were only two percentage points higher for a similar question.
CBS News and The New York Times conducted a national survey of 1,289 adults in 2015. When asked, “Do you favor or oppose a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers,” 92 percent of Americans were in favor — the exact number Clinton used in her speech. CBS and the New York Times also discovered a discrepancy between Democrats (98 percent support) and Republicans (87 percent support). Although Clinton may have derived the “92 percent” statistic from this poll, The Support System has ruled it out due to the fact that CBS/NYT did not screen for gun owners.
The Quinnipiac Polling Institute released a more recent national poll in 2015, surveying 1,140 registered voters. Here, Quinnipiac refined their question on background checks, asking: “Would you support or oppose a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online?” One year after the 2014 poll, Quinnipiac encountered lower rates of support from the public and gun owners — 89 percent and 84 percent, respectively. Clinton would have incentive to use 2014 data with higher rates of support — even if outdated.
Having investigated various polls from the past three years, The Support System determines that Clinton’s reference to “92 percent of Americans” faithfully depicts the severity of public opinion on background checks. Although Clinton’s statistical data may be disputed, it is clear that the majority of voters and gun owners desire new background check legislation.
Ultimately, The Support System rules that Hillary Clinton’s statement is SLIPPERY.
On rainy days, one misstep could result in a disastrous fall. Rubber boots are meant to protect you from harm, yet caution is still advised in stormy terrain. The designation of “Slippery” is given to statements where the speaker should be careful to use facts in a specific context. Without caution, the speaker might face consequences.
Clinton’s statement is ruled as SLIPPERY due to the misleading framing of data. Clinton distorts the data to a personal end — attributing public support to her own gun reform policies. Nevertheless, The Support System has determined that the data itself is legitimate. Clinton calls attention to a pervasive national issue, where public opinion goes beyond party divisions. Fundamentally, Clinton’s claim is true — however, she exploits the truth through obscure language. With clarification and context, Clinton could avoid this dangerous terrain.