Public opinion about the National Rifle Association

In April, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the National Rifle Association was viewed favorably by 68% of Americans, and unfavorably by 32%. Unlike most polls, the Reuters poll apparently did not allow “unsure” or “undecided” as a choice. In each of the demographics which the poll provided–Republicans, Democrats, independents, whites, and blacks–the NRA was viewed favorably by at least 55%.

A 2005 Gallup Poll had found a 60/34 favorable/unfavorable view of the NRA. Previous Gallup results were 52/39 (May 2000), 51/39 (April 2000), 51/40 (April 1999, right after the Columbine High School murders), 42/51 (June 1995), and 55/32 (March 1993).

It is interesting to compare the NRA’s ratings with support for handgun control.  Since 1959, Gallup has been asking “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?” There have been some small changes in wording over the years, and the question is not a perfect test of support for handgun prohibition; some respondents might interpret “other authorized persons” simply as support for the licensing for handgun owners. However, the Gallup question is the closest thing there is to a 50-year gauge for sentiment for banning handguns.

In October 2011, Gallup found that 26% of Americans (a record low) thought that there should be such a law, and 73% did not. The 26/73 anti-/pro-handgun split is fairly close to the 32/68% anti-/pro-NRA split. After Columbine, 38% wanted the anti-handgun law, and 40% disapproved of NRA.

Likewise, Gallup in May 1993 found 54% in against the proposed law, and 55% approval for NRA.

Thus, generally speaking, over the last two decades, Americans who favor handgun prohibition appear to have accurately identified the NRA as a major obstacle to their wishes, and have viewed the NRA unfavorably. Americans who oppose handgun prohibition have viewed the NRA favorably for the same reason.

As American public opinion has evolved from a majority to a super-majority which supports the right to own a handgun, public opinion has likewise moved towards a super-majority with a favorable view of the NRA.

There are many causes for the evolution, but it seems plausible that at least part of the cause has been the increasing effectiveness of the NRA itself. To the extent that the NRA has convinced some Americans that handguns in the right hands are beneficial, then those Americans may have become more likely to view the NRA favorably. To the extent that popular NRA spokesmen (such as three-term NRA President Charlton Heston) or popular NRA programs (such as Eddie Eagle Gun Safety) have made some Americans view the NRA favorably, some of those Americans may have become less inclined to support handgun prohibition.

Because the NRA has (despite some fierce criticisms by Republicans, including in 2010) continued to support Democrats with good records on the Second Amendment, and to oppose Republicans with bad records, the NRA has avoided the problem of being identified with only a single political party. When an interest group supports only one party, that group will inevitably be viewed unfavorably by most members of the other political party.

And now that even long-time anti-gun advocates such as Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer have been affirming their support for the Second Amendment individual right, the basic premise with which the NRA is identified has become so widely supported that only politicians in very safe districts dare to dispute it publicly.

Founded in 1871, the NRA views itself as “America’s oldest civil rights organization,” an embodiment of American freedom values. These days, it seems that most Americans tend to agree.