The group that heard the word "control" was less likely to support tighter gun laws.
As is to be expected, support for and opposition to new gun laws was split along party lines. But Quinnipiac noticed the most significant change in perceptions about gun laws based on rhetoric was among independents.
Before we go any further, let's note that the phrase "gun control" is hardly a toxic one. The changes in support among the general population are barely statistically significant, Post pollster Scott Clement notes. (For polling methodology geeks, follow this * to the bottom of the page to hear Clement explain why.)
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't discount this study and the impact rhetoric has on the evolving issue of gun control.
To understand more, let's back up to what we do know about how Americans feel about new gun laws. They largely approve of a few specific policies, including that background checks should be expanded to all gun sales.
But as the National Journal was reminded in a tweet Tuesday about Republican businessman and former Colorado congressional candidate Ryan Frazier, being among the 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans who support background checks doesn't mean you're in favor of "gun control."
When you lump these popular policies together or ask about stricter gun laws in general, support for new measures goes down — most notably among Republicans and independents.
So clearly, how you talk about these things can matter — in a big way. Much bigger, in fact, than saying "gun control" vs. "new gun laws."
And people are still wary of new gun laws, despite gun-control advocates such as Hillary Rodham Clinton consistently talking about popular policies such as universal background checks on the presidential campaign trail. Which brings us back to the word "control." If Americans are indeed circumspect about the word, we offer two potential, not mutually exclusive reasons why:
1) Americans like their guns, and most would agree it's our constitutional right to own them. A 2008 Washington Post poll showed that 72 percent of Americans thought the 2nd Amendment, which reads: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," protects individuals' rights as well as militias' rights to own guns.
2) Americans appear pessimistic about whether gun laws can help stop mass shootings. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, they blame the nation's inability to address mental health issues rather than inadequate gun control laws for mass shootings by a nearly 3-to-1 margin (63 percent to 23 percent).
The language a new generation of gun control advocates are adopting suggests that they're aware of the potential effect "gun control" has on Americans.
Take a look at two relatively new gun control groups: former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords's and her husband Mark Kelly's nonprofit and super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions; and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's group, Everytown for Gun Safety. They don't have "control" in their names.
Going back even further, "control" isn't a word that the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence embraces either — even as it once did. The group was founded in the mid-1970s as the National Council to Control Handguns. It became Handgun Control Inc. in 1980 and, in 2001, changed it's name to what it's known as today.
The nascent gun control movement is still tweaking its rhetoric, and the polling analysts of the world are just beginning to dig in on what impact that rhetoric has.
But if there's a growing consensus that "gun control" is on its way out, the next question for advocates is: What gun-law terminology will resonate with gun-loving Americans?
*Washington Post's polling expert Scott Clement on the study's results: The differing results by question wording are barely statistically significant, if that. Respondents were six points more likely to support “stricter gun laws” than “stricter gun control laws,” just exceeding the 5.8 percentage-point threshold needed to be significant using traditional tests (assuming exactly half of Quinnipiac’s 1,144 respondents were asked each question). But that’s also assuming no loss in survey precision due to weighting of data, and Quinnipiac (like most pollsters) employs weighting procedures to match the population. The difference between “gun control’ and “gun laws” becomes statistically insignificant even when a modest weighting “design effect” is included.