A recent survey of nearly 900 Freshman, Junior and Masters Graduate students at North Carolina State University finds that attitudes about a potential ban of semi-automatic weapons varies by partisanship and gender.
The survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, Jan 28-29, was sent via email to about 2,600 NCSU students. A majority of respondents opposed (57%) a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons. In addition, and consistent with national polling on the issue, male students were more likely to oppose the ban (66%) than female students (48%). Likewise, Democrats overwhelmingly supported a ban (73%), while only 20% of republicans and 40% of Independents supported a ban.
The survey also included an experiment that asked students whether they supported or opposed a ban on semi-automatic weapons while it also randomly varied a picture of this kind of weapon respondents saw. Pictures were chosen based on likely notions of what a semi-automatic weapon might or might not look like. Approximately half of the respondents were shown a picture of a black .223 REM caliber Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle with an extended clip, folding stock, and pistol grip; features that classify the weapon as an “assault rifle” under the now expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (left). The other half of respondents were shown a picture of another extended-clip Ruger Mini-14 without assault-style features (right). Differences in the guns were semantic only. The guns are the same caliber, can fire are the same rate, and can hold the same amount of cartridges; their capabilities, and thus their deadliness, are essentially the same.
Of students shown the assault-style Ruger, 44% support a ban of semi-automatic weapons while 56% opposed the ban. Support for the ban falls to 39% when students are shown the wood stock weapon.
Gun ownership also appears to be a reliable indicator for attitudes on gun control. Of the 55% of State students who said one of their parents owns a gun, 69% said they’d oppose a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons. Conversely, students whose parents do not own a gun support a ban (56%).
Images Matter, Marginally
Democrats and Independents, women, and those with parental gun owners were more responsive to the different images of guns. Yet, none of these image effects were substantively large. For example, women shown the assault-style Ruger support the proposed ban more than if shown the wood-stock Ruger (55% vs. 49%). Similarly, support for the ban increased among Democrats and Independents when shown the wood-stock image (from 71% to 76% among Democrats, and from 36% to 44% among Independents). And, support for the ban increases from 29% to 34% among students whose parents owned a gun.
*Author’s note—this survey was designed with the specific purpose of testing the attitude change between respondent groups primed with similar but different images. The language “semi-automatic weapon” is a broad category of pistols, shotguns and rifles. The images shown in the survey are not an accurate representation of what most people’s notion of what a “semi-automatic weapon” looks like. However, using language like “assault weapons ban” instead of “semi-automatic weapons ban” would be accurate for one picture, but not the other, leading to misleading information or non-identical survey questions—something survey researchers must stay away from.