Despite Texas’ prominent place in America’s consciousness as a pro-gun state, Texans’ attitudes toward gun control express the same ambivalence about gun regulation that was made apparent in the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass background check legislation ostensibly supported by 90 percent of Americans in national polls.
The evidence of Texans’ ambivalence is a Lone Star variation on the national theme. Considering the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll results on national and state-level gun control proposals in light of the panoply of pro-gun measures being considered this legislative session provides a clear illustration of a very ambivalent set of attitudes.
Before you take offense at daring to question Texans’ love of guns, note that in psychological terms, ambivalence doesn’t mean opposition or rejection of guns or someone’s right to tote one. While we like to think that people have clear and coherent sets of beliefs on most topics, one relatively common alternative to such clarity is ambivalence, the state of having mixed, often countervailing, opinions or ideas about something or someone. It’s an important concept when studying attitudes that make up public opinion, especially political ones, where people’s norms and values often come into conflict with the reality of policy prescriptions.
In the context of the gun control debate currently taking place at both the federal and state levels, to say that the Senate was ignoring public opinion in tabling the background check measure — or that the Legislature is accurately reflecting it in expanding gun access — is to ignore the intricacies and ambivalence in public opinion on gun control.
Texas provides a looking-glass view of the national picture on guns – though with its own Texas flavor, of course. Among the 78 percent who said that they supported background checks in our February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey, only 54 percent said that they would like to see gun control laws made stricter — the very essence of a background check. By contrast, 10 percent said that they would like to see gun control laws made less strict, and 33 percent said that they would like to see them left as they are now — despite their support of a background check that would, by its very nature, be a change. Similarly, only 51 percent of our background check supporters expressed the opinion that gun control laws do “a lot” or “some” to prevent gun violence, and 47 percent thought that gun control laws do “not much” or nothing at all to prevent gun violence.
Taken together, about half of the background check supporters registered something akin to a general opposition to more gun control laws, or at least seriously questioned their effectiveness.
Texas has had its fair share of gun-related measures introduced during the 83rd Legislature, the more successful of which reflect the less restrictive pole of Texans’ conflicting attitudes. Though most proposals seeking to expand gun rights in Texas have met the fate of so many other bills — death by indifference or by stalling — two bills are progressing through the Legislature and appear likely to pass in some form before the close of session. The most prominent bill would allow those with concealed carry licenses to use them on college campuses unless individual campuses opt out. Another bill would reduce the number of instruction hours required to earn a license to carry a concealed handgun.
Drilling down into attitudes about “campus carry” legislation again reveals the ambivalence underlying those attitudes. When considering allowing faculty, staff and students to carry concealed handguns on college campuses, 48 percent of our respondents registered their support while 47 percent registered opposition. But like the dynamic described above, among those who support campus carry, 17 percent would like to see gun control laws made more strict and 52 percent would like to see them left as they are now. Among respondents who supported reducing the requirements necessary to carry a concealed handgun, 21 percent said that they would like to see gun control laws made more strict while 43 percent said that they would like to see them left as they are now.
This ambivalence is no doubt a function of the issue. The most prominent examples of ambivalence in public opinion come from policy fights over racial equality (think affirmative action and school busing), where contradictions between values and policy have had a long history of resulting in heated and open conflict.
For state-level counterexamples, we can look to immigration and personal assessments of Gov. Rick Perry. Among those who oppose comprehensive immigration reform, 81 percent think that children brought here illegally by their parents should pay out-of-state tuition (9 percent have no opinion), while among those with an unfavorable opinion of Perry, 79 percent would vote against him if he ran again for governor, while only 1 percent would support him. The latter in particular doesn’t readily present people with a conflict in values or identities, just an assessment of a man. Immigration, while no doubt more complicated, doesn’t readily — or at least obviously — lend itself to the types of conflicting attitudes we see with gun control.
But, cognitively speaking, gun control is complicated, especially in Texas. Guns are a major piece of both the present and historical state culture, and they are believed to be enshrined in the Constitution as a right — and people tend to hold some of their strongest attitudes about topics related to their identities and/or rights. Reconciling these attitudes with the recent tragedies is difficult for all but the most hard-core extremists on either side, so one can forgive the public for not registering neatly compartmentalized sets of responses to the various gun control measures currently being debated at the state and federal levels — regardless of whether those proposals seek to reduce gun violence by limiting or increasing gun access.
So despite the overwhelming support for background checks captured in numerous public opinion polls, support for one proposal is not the same as consensus, which will remain elusive as long as people hold strong but conflicting opinions about gun rights and gun control. In Texas, it’s a safe bet that the former will continue to outdraw the latter in the political arena — but not without signs of the underlying ambivalence that such a volatile topic is bound to trigger.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.