Tim Thurley: Read those polls carefully, Liberals. The fine print will disappoint you.
On the surface, guns still look like a good wedge issue for the struggling Trudeau government. Look closer, though, and it gets less cheerful.
By: Tim Thurley
Interpreting opinion polls on nuanced topics is often likened to reading tea leaves: inaccurate, usually pointless, and liable to make a mess if you’re not careful. Still, governments like to know where their policies stand, and they definitely prefer them to be popular. As caucuses meet before the coming parliamentary session, reading the firearm policy tea leaves will be a key priority.
Through Bill C-21 and various regulatory tools, the federal government is seeking a suite of new gun laws that include a gun “buyback” for firearms banned in 2020, a handgun “freeze,” and an additional so-called “assault-style weapon” ban. Public Safety Canada commissioned two surveys that were conducted in winter and spring 2023, just as the C-21 debates were getting hot. One was delivered to the government by EKOS in June 2023 and one by Environics in March 2023. Analyzing these polls provides insight into what will inform the government’s direction.
Let’s preempt the usual objections to opinion polling. Yes, polling a few thousand people is an entirely reasonable way to gauge public opinion at a particular point in time. No, just because you didn’t get polled doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Ditto for results you don’t like, or that don’t track with your social circle.
It’s the desire to see results consistent with one’s priors that could motivate the government to take these polling results as a sign of Canadians backing their policies. I’d caution the government against that reasoning. Interpreting these polls as a ringing public endorsement of the policies they’re pursuing is as liable to backfire as succeed.
And let’s be absolutely clear: the polls do look like a ringing endorsement. The topline numbers show big majorities favouring bans on handguns (71 per cent) and revolvers (60 per cent); temporarily restricting handgun imports (69 per cent); banning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns (55 per cent); banning “assault-style” firearms (78 per cent); and even restricting replicas such as airsoft guns (63 per cent).
But dig a little deeper, and factor in how the questions were asked and what the polls show about electoral politics, gun-owner demographics, and underlying trends, and most of that good news deteriorates for a government that wants to exploit the gun wedge for all it is worth.
Those big topline numbers are much softer than they seem. Gun control advocates, opinion columnists, and governments alike like to claim huge majorities are in favour of prohibitions — but ask how many believe handguns should be illegal in all cases and the 71 per cent quoted in the topline figure falls to 49 per cent. Ask just about revolvers and it’s a mere 27 per cent. Most (also 71 per cent) also say they support exemptions for owners training, competing or coaching in sport shooting when directly asked. Put another way, up to half of that 49 per cent who say handguns should always be illegal don’t seem to mean it.
And this is interesting. This “illegal for most, exemptions for others” model may be familiar to the more informed reader as being … pretty close to the current law, where employment, collecting, or sport shooting are authorized reasons for handgun ownership, provided one can pass the background checks.
Engagement also matters. The voters who are most familiar with the new rules feel the government is screwing up, and by a huge margin: 48 per cent of those familiar with the changes rate the government’s performance as poor, versus 26 per cent of the unfamiliar. People who are more informed about a particular issue than their peers often care more about that issue. They’re also more likely to vote on it. If you’re only winning the debate with the people who don’t care, you’re losing.
Now, I would caution gun owners against any celebration. These figures are not an indicator of a consensus against the government’s proposed ban. It’s a divisive issue. Still, given the softness of the numbers and the relative strength of engagement, the government should be just as cautious in interpreting these polls as a consensus for one.
Fascinating as the general public’s responses are, it’s the profile of gun ownership that might be the most interesting part of both surveys. The most common single reason gun owners identified for their firearm ownership in both polls was target shooting for sport. Sparing hunters was the focal point of the government’s forced climbdown, but they have spared little time or thought for the sport shooters who are bearing the brunt of their policies.
That lack of understanding could lead to unpleasant surprises. Canadians who own guns meet the traditional understanding of the gun owner, one who is often older, male, rural and from western or Atlantic Canada. Canadians who target shoot with handguns are more likely to be urban or suburban, younger, and have a university degree. While urban and university-educated non-owners are more likely to support more gun control, one might recognize handgun target shooters are also more likely to be in these traditionally left-accessible demographics.
It is worth noting that the polls disagree, a lot, on how many guns Canadian gun owners have. Environics found 47 per cent of gun owners have just one gun and only seven per cent have more than five. EKOS asked the same question and found that just 20 per cent own only one gun, and 33 per cent have more than five. This is a massive difference and cannot be explained by ordinary fluctuations or margins of error, or by the small observed differences in the number of new owners between the two polls.
The EKOS survey aligns more closely with understandings of modern Canadian gun ownership and is probably much closer to reality. A further indicator of Environics’ misalignment is the unlikely survey result that 20 per cent of Canadian gun owners thought pellet guns, BB guns, and manual-action firearms such as bolt-action rifles should be illegal, versus a net of nine per cent in the general population in the EKOS survey who thought they should be illegal in all cases. That’s obviously absurd, though to credit Environics it does show how hard this issue is to poll.
The trend observed by Environics is still worth noting despite the wonky results. Numbers opposed to the buyback are increasing. The number of gun owners who said nothing would motivate them to participate in a buyback increased from seven per cent to 20 per cent in just one year. Net support for a buyback and a ban each dropped by 12 points in the same timeframe.
While buy-in and trust are rapidly falling inside the firearm community, outside of it there’s just not a huge electorate to mobilize around the gun wedge. Forty per cent may believe laws aren’t strict enough, but the combined 52 per cent who think the laws are about right or too strict outweigh them by a significant margin. The 52 per cent also contains those more familiar with the current rules and those who are more engaged.
The good news for the government is that an alternative path exists. Large majorities on all sides of the debate support new measures to tackle smuggling and trafficking (95 per cent) and action against gun and gang violence (94 per cent). The government’s disproportionate focus on legal owners instead of on criminals or the massive border sieve is the main reason given by those who rate government performance as poor. Focusing on evidence and consensus-based issues would reduce the government's ability to use the wedge, but the wedge isn’t paying dividends anymore anyway.
A familiar pattern in firearm polling in Canada and the United States has been high support for simple questions, with much lower support once the specifics and implications are described. That was seen in long-gun registry polling. Registration polled well at first; near its introduction it even attracted overwhelming majority support in Alberta! Once implementation occurred, and the rules, costs and ineffectiveness became known, support decreased dramatically.
The pattern of declining support as details and consequences are made known is observable in the EKOS and Environics polls. As the most knowledgeable and engaged voters are far more likely to oppose the government’s firearm agenda than the disengaged, support for prohibitions is far less firm than it seems, and the numbers have slipped as the issue has gained profile in the political discourse. Looking at only topline numbers to gauge support will be a quick way for the government to overplay its hand. Dig deeper, and the government will find that voters are not so readily talked into policy proposals that are far more extreme than those of our peer nations in much of Europe and even Oceania. Sensible policies, moderation, and upholding Canada’s balanced firearm laws is a far more rewarding game to play.
Tea leaves can talk, if you listen carefully.
Tim Thurley specializes in firearm policy, having earned a Master of Science from Leiden University with his analysis of the long-gun registry’s lack of effect on Canadian homicide rates. He lives in the Northwest Territories, where he files regular Access to Information requests on firearm issues and anything else of interest.
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