WASHINGTON, D.C. - Does this make sense? Two trends in public opinion: support for the death penalty has been declining steadily for many years in America; so has support for gun control.
The Pew Research Center has polling on the death penalty. A majority of Americans still favors the death penalty, but by the lowest margin in 40 years. Take a look:
If trends continue this way, the lines could cross in five years or so.
The shift in views is not primarily a shift in morality. Pew says 63 percent believe that the death penalty is morally justified as punishment for some crimes and only 31 percent think capital punishment is always morally wrong.
But 71 percent say there is a risk that an innocent person will get the death penalty. This seems to be driving the change in public opinion. Also, 61 percent say the death penalty does not deter crime.
There is an interesting religious divide. Protestants support the death penalty (63 percent) and Catholics (53 percent) while people who are religiously unaffiliated barely support it, 48 percent favor, 45 percent oppose.
The gender gap is huge. Men support the death penalty overwhelmingly, 64-30, women, barely, 49 percent-45 percent.
Now, let’s look at another crime and safety issue, gun control. Pew’s polling found that in December 2014, “For the first time, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership, 52% to 46%.” Here’s the history:
Perhaps the oddest thing about this is that though violent crime rates have been declining since the 1990s, Americans think they’ve been rising. At they same, they’ve changed views on whether gun control prevents or fosters crime.
“Over the past 25 years or so, there has been a divergence between American perceptions about crime and actual crime rates,” according to Pew. “And those who worried about crime had favored stricter gun control; now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership – not gun control – makes people safer.”
Charles Blow, in a recent column in The New York Times, notes that gun sales and NRA memberships tend to increase immediately after mass shootings such as Newtown. To roughly half the population this seems insane; to the other half, it seems like common sense.
Intuitively you would expect that public opinion about gun control and the death penalty would move on roughly parallel tracks. Why don’t they?
I have a hunch that part of the reason is that gun control and gun rights have become hugely politicized in a way that the death penalty hasn’t. Individuals may have intense feelings about the death penalty, but there aren’t huge, well-funded interest groups on both sides. Gun rights have become a culture war – perhaps the biggest remaining one. The death penalty has become less divisive.
The NRA is perhaps the country’s most powerful and skilled special interest group, backed by a large membership, an industry and a cadre of smaller, like-minded organizations. On gun issues, the political combat is asymmetrical, as they say at the Pentagon. On the death penalty, there are no interest groups remotely comparable, on either side. There isn’t a lot of capital at stake.
(As a tiny example of how this plays out, I will get numerous heated e-mails and missives from gun rights advocates about this story and will hear nothing about the death penalty from either side.)
Americans’ views on the death penalty have responded to new facts, most importantly the cases where death row inmates have been cleared by DNA evidence. The lack of evidence that the death penalty deters crime, it’s high cost and the some grizzly botched executions have had an impact, too.
This is less true about gun control. Many Americans believe violent crime is always going up, but it isn’t. Gun rights advocates have great faith in studies that show gun ownership deters crime, studies that are controversial at best. And there are so many guns in circulation already that the idea gun control can be effective seems absurd.
Still, thousands of innocent people die every year at the end of a gun, whether by accident or intent. How many lives are saved and crimes prevented by individual, civilian gun owners? I don’t think there is a good answer. These questions don’t influence public opinion much.
Nonetheless, for a growing percentage of Americans, the value of the individual right to own guns trumps utilitarian and policy-based arguments.
And for a growing percentage of Americans, the risk that the judicial system will execute an innocent person trumps the belief that capital punishment can be moral and just, in theory.
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