Why the gun debate is so intractable

March 13, 2013

Even as Republicans and Democrats broadly agree about the necessity of some specific new gun restrictions, there remain glaring partisan rifts over both the need for stricter gun laws in general and an assault weapons ban, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Overall, most Americans (52 percent) said they favor stricter gun-control laws. But, Democrats and Republicans disagree sharply over the matter. More than three in four Democrats said they support stricter gun laws, compared to fewer than three in 10 Republicans.

On some specific issues, however, there is greater bipartisan accord. Requiring background checks for guns purchased at gun shows, for example, receives overwhelming support from both parties. So does a law making illegal gun sales a federal crime.

On the other hand, a law that would ban the sale of assault weapons remains a divisive partisan issue. Overall, a majority of Americans (57 percent) support a ban. But just 43 percent of Republicans favor it, compared to 77 percent of Democrats.

The new numbers come as the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced measures Tuesday to expand the background check system and a school security program. The background check bill is a placeholder, as lawmakers hope to get past disagreements that have stalled progress on a bipartisan measure.

Last week, the committee advanced a measure to make illegal gun purchases a federal crime. And later this week, it will take on the politically thorniest issue: the assault weapons ban.

On the one hand, it's notable that the ban, which has the support of nearly six in 10 Americans, would be so difficult for lawmakers to pass. On the other, it's not so unexpected, since Congressional Republicans (especially those in the House) represent a smaller slice of the public that isn't necessarily aligned with the country as a whole. In the House, where there are more GOP-leaning districts than Democratic-leaning ones, opposing the ban makes sense for many Republicans.

What's more, Republicans haven't paid a broad political price for opposing the ban, even though it is popular with the public. Obama (41 percent) and Congressional Republicans (42 percent) are virtually running even on the question of whom Americans trust to do a better job on the issue of gun control.

In short, the support of most Americans will not necessarily lead to passage of certain gun-control measures, even in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. that refocused  the public's attention to gun violence.

Scott Clement, a polling analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this report.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · March 13, 2013