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During debate on any contentious issue, advocates will argue that the public is on their side. That was the case during a March 18, 2014, State House rally designed to encourage the Rhode Island General Assembly to adopt stronger gun-control laws.
Rep. Linda Finn, D-Middletown, used that strategy at the end of her speech.
"By a two-to-one margin, Rhode Islanders want to ban assault weapons and we have a very small percentage of gun owners in this state, less than 13 percent," she said.
We decided to see whether support for an assault weapons ban is really that high and the level of gun ownership in Rhode Island is really that low.
PolitiFact has looked at the issue nationally, giving a Mostly True to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's 2013 comment that "No poll done this year . . . shows less than a majority to reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons." But Finn is claiming a much larger margin of support.
When we contacted Finn, she sent us the results of a poll released in February 2013 in which 64 percent of Rhode Islanders said they supported banning assault weapons, 27 percent were opposed and 9 percent were not sure. Even with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, that's a 2-to-1 margin.
The 24-question survey of 614 voters covered a wide range of issues and was done by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning survey firm based in North Carolina. Unlike most other polling services, PPP collects its data through robocalls, in which people hear a recorded message and are asked to respond by pressing a button on their telephone. That means a lot of people -- typically 9 out of 10 -- hang up without responding.
After checking with area pollsters, we couldn't find a more traditional survey of Rhode Islanders on the assault weapons issue.
Finn said she thought the PPP results were similar to the results of national polls. They're not.
We found a compilation of assault weapons polls at PollingReport.com and discovered that the degree of support for a ban on assault-style weapons was much less pronounced.
The split was 54-42 in a May 2013 Pew study, 56-42 in an April 2013 ABC News / Washington Post survey, 51-48 in an April 2013 CNN / ORC poll, and 59-36 in a March 2013 Quinnipiac University survey.
Those national results don't come close to the 2-to-1 margin of support seen in the PPP Rhode Island poll, but that shouldn't be surprising when other parts of the United States have very different attitudes toward firearms.
And what about Finn's statement about the rate of gun ownership in Rhode Island?
A direct state-by-state tally of gun owners is not available. In fact, it is illegal in Rhode Island for the state to maintain a gun registry.
We do know that in 2013, 3,280 active concealed carry permits were issued by the Rhode Island attorney general's office. But that's only a small fraction of owners.
Also last year, Rhode Island gun dealers reported doing 21,793 BCI background checks for the purchase or transfer of at least one firearm. All but 145 were approved.
But that number doesn't tell you how many gun owners there are in Rhode Island because that's only for one year, each purchase might involve more than one weapon, and the same owner might be counted multiple times if he or she makes more than one purchase throughout the year.
So the best information comes from surveys.
Finn sent us to a webpage at About.com which reports that 12.8 percent of Rhode Island's population owns guns, and the only states where gun ownership was lower were Massachusetts, New Jersey and Hawaii.
About.com says the source is the website USACarry.com.
But it’s actually from a from a survey done six years earlier -- in 2001 -- by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which tracks health risks in the United States and is billed as "the world’s largest telephone survey." In addition, that wasn't the percentage of the population owning guns. It was the percentage of adults who said there was at least one weapon in their household.
We were unable to get more recent data from the BRFSS, which asked the question in 2002 and 2004. But we found it in two studies.
A 2013 paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at the data from 2004, reporting a rounded-off rate of 12 percent, which conforms with what Finn said.
Rep. Linda Finn said, "By a two-to-one margin, Rhode Islanders want to ban assault weapons and we have a very small percentage of gun owners in this state, less than 13 percent."
Finn's statement about how Rhode Islanders feel about the issue comes from a recent robocall poll that has not been confirmed by any other Rhode Island polls.
Her statement on the rate of gun ownership in Rhode Island is based on very outdated studies. But we have not been able to find any more recent data to suggest the number has changed.
Because Finn's statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.
YouTube.com, "Linda Finn," Steve Ahlquist channel, March 18, 2014, accessed March 21, 2014
PolitiFact.com, "Sen. Dianne Feinstein says every national poll this year shows support for assault weapons ban," April 22, 2013, and "R.I. Rep. Raymond Gallison says 74 percent of Rhode Islanders want a national popular vote for president instead of the Electoral College," June 30, 2013
Interview and email, Linda Finn, state representative, March 21 and 23, 2014
PublicPolicyPolling.com, "Senator Reed with Large Lead Over Republicans," Feb. 1, 2013, accessed March 25, 2014
PollingReport.com, "Guns," accessed March 25, 2014
RILIN.state.RI.US, "Weapons, Section 11-47-41," Rhode Island General Laws, accessed April 4, 2014
Interview and email, Amy Kempe, spokeswoman, Rhode Island attorney general's office, April 4, 2014
About.com, "Gun Owners as A Percentage of Each State's Population," undated, accessed March 25, 2014
Emails, Eric Young, public affairs manager, and Tom W. Smith, director, Center for the Study of Politics and Society, NORC at the University of Chicago, April 1-2, 2014, and Courtney Lenard, spokeswoman, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 2, 2014
SCHS.state.NC.US, "BRFSS Survey Results 2001 for Nationwide - Firearms," North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, Sept. 20, 2002, accessed April 1, 2014
Pediatrics.AAPPublications.org, "Prevalence of Household Firearms and Firearm-Storage Practices in the 50 States and the District of Columbia: Findings From the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2002," Pediatrics, Sept. 1, 2005, accessed April 2, 2014
AJE.OxfordJournals.org, "Firearms and Suicide in the United States: Is Risk Independent of Underlying Suicidal Behavior?" American Journal of Epidemiology, published online Aug. 23, 2013, accessed April 2, 2014
GunPolicy.org, "Appendix Table 1: Data on Firearm Ownership (2004) by State," undated, accessed April 2, 2014
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