Everything you need to know about Americans’ views on guns — in 7 easy steps

January 22, 2013

In the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been huge amounts of polling done that provides the clearest picture in years of where Americans stand on guns, gun violence and what the government should (or can) do to prevent incidents of large-scale gun violence.


Guns. Reuters photo.

We've sorted through the data to bring you seven key findings from eight national polls that asked a variety of gun-related questions. (Full details on each poll: Associated Press-GfK, CBS News-New York Times, CNN-Time-ORC, Fox News, Gallup, NBC News-Wall Street Journal, Pew Research Center and the Washington Post-ABC News.)

Here are the seven things you need to know about how the American public think when it thinks about guns:

1. Shootings spur spike in demand for stricter gun control laws

The latest CBS News-New York Times poll tracked a 15-point increase in the share of Americans saying gun control laws should be more "strict,” up to 54 percent from 39 percent in April. This matches a 14-point jump in desire for stricter laws in a December Gallup poll (from 44 to 58 percent). The NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll finds only a four-point rise from a year ago but arrives in a similar place as others with 56 percent saying laws should be stricter than they are now.

CBS News-New York Times poll, Jan. 11-15, 2012.
CBS News-New York Times poll, Jan. 11-15, 2012.

2. Obama’s proposals on guns are popular

Most Americans support three key Obama proposals that will require congressional approval. Expanding background checks for gun sales is clearly the most popular, with support peaking at 92 percent for making such checks required for "all potential gun buyers" in the CBS-NYT survey. The least popular component of Obama's proposal – requiring a lookup for sales between individuals – still wins 75 percent support in the CNN-Time-ORC poll. The story isn't the same for banning assault weapons, which has drawn the sharpest negative response from legislators on Capitol Hill. Such an idea earns between 53 and 58 percent support across six surveys.

2013-01-21 Support for gun measures

3. Guns, parents, and mental health treatment share blame for gun violence

Most – 56 percent – said inadequate background checks and sub-par treatment of the mentally ill contribute “a great deal” to gun violence, according to the Post-ABC poll released last week. Similar majorities in the NBC-WSJ poll blamed poor mental health treatment and inattentive parents for recent mass shootings. Fewer than half blamed the availability of a range of weapons and clips, the media or poor school security.

2013-01-21 Gun contributes graphic

4. Gun owners support background checks, but not much else

Americans in gun owning households are much less supportive of new restrictions on firearms than those who don't have a firearm in the House. Across polls that reported such results, between 40 and 45 percent of respondents in gun-owning households support an assault weapons ban. A bare majority of this group supported a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines in the CBS-NYT poll, but support dropped below half in three other polls. Strong majorities of gun owning household members support requiring background checks for private sales at gun shows, standing at 86 percent in the Post-ABC survey and 85 percent in the Pew poll.

5. Stricter gun laws not seen as most effective solution

Just over half of the public (53 percent) think stricter gun laws would do “a lot” or “some” to prevent gun violence in the CBS-NYT poll. By contrast, 82 percent in that poll see “better mental health screening and treatment” as a solution and 74 percent say so about adding armed security in schools and public places. And in a striking result from the Post-ABC poll, about as many Americans predicted placing armed guards in schools would reduce school violence (41 percent) as said stricter gun laws would be effective (43 percent).


Washington Post-ABC News poll, Jan. 10-13, 2012.

6. Few see new gun restrictions as a top priority

Obama has argued that new gun laws should be at the top of Congress’ agenda, but the issue is a lower priority for most Americans. Fully 68 percent of Americans said the economy should be the highest priority for Obama and Congress, while fewer than half as many cited enacting stricter gun control laws (32 percent) or addressing gun violence (28 percent) in the Post-ABC poll. Democrats are the exception: 53 percent say enacting stricter gun laws is a top priority.

Washington Post-ABC News poll, Jan. 10-13, 2012.
Washington Post-ABC News poll, Jan. 10-13, 2012.

7. The NRA is popular. Its leaders, not so much.

The National Rifle Association’s remains popular with more positive than negative reviews in polls by NBC-WSJ (41 to 34 percent), CBS-NYT (38 to 29 percent) and Fox (56 to 33 percent). But the organization’s leadership ratings are upside down, with a 36 to 44 percent favorable-unfavorable split in the latest Post-ABC poll.

Scott Clement is a polling analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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