Most back new gun, immigration laws, Post-ABC poll shows

April 16, 2013

Most Americans, including half of all gun owners, say it is possible to enact new laws without infringing on gun rights, and overwhelming majorities support expanded background checks at gun shows and for online gun sales, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The findings come as the Senate prepares for its first votes on new gun legislation this week, in what will provide an early test of strength between the influence of the gun lobby vs. the power of public opinion, at least when it comes to background checks.

The proposal for broader background checks is the only one of the three major provisions tested in the survey to draw broad bipartisan public support. Two other restrictions up for consideration this week — nationwide bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips — get majority support from Democrats and independents but are opposed by majorities of rank-and-file Republicans.

Similarly, there are deep partisan differences on the other marquee issue slated to soon start moving in the Senate: comprehensive immigration reform. Overall, support for legislation that includes a way for undocumented immigrants to live legally in the U.S. is higher than ever, with nearly two-thirds of Americans backing a pathway to legal status.

However, while three-quarters of Democrats and at least six in 10 independents support such a move on immigration reform, support drops sharply among Republicans. As with gun legislation, the results are yet another reminder that Republican lawmakers face a fractured base on these two volatile issues.

Guns and immigration at center stage

The poll also found continued pessimism about the job market and spreading frustration with the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. Fully two-thirds say jobs are difficult to find in their communities — down from its heights during the recession, but unmoved over the past year. Disapproval of the sequester cuts has ticked up four percentage points during the past month, and the percentage saying the cuts have affected them personally is up eight points.

Negativity about the economy — barely more than three in 10 even see progress on the jobs front — continues to damp Americans’ enthusiasm for their political leaders.

President Obama’s overall approval rating is stuck at 50 percent among all Americans, and has slipped below 50 percent among registered voters for the first time since he won reelection five months ago — 47 percent of registered voters now approve, and 49 percent disapprove. As has been the case for the bulk of the past three years, most — 53 percent — disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Barely more than half — 51 percent — say Obama is “in touch” with the concerns of most people in the country; 46 percent say he is not. Still, Republicans are seen as significantly more out of touch: 70 percent of Americans — including nearly half of all self-identified Republicans — say the party is disconnected from the mainstream. The Democratic Party fares somewhat better, but 51 percent still say it too is out of touch.

This week will offer the first clear indication of the strength of the gun lobby vs. the power of public opinion. The Senate will vote on a proposal calling for new background checks for gun purchases that is authored by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), two politicians with positive ratings from the National Rifle Association.

In the new Post-ABC poll, 90 percent of Democrats and 84 percent each of Republicans and independents say they support such checks. Moreover, majorities in each group say they “strongly support” such a measure. With the NRA opposed to the measure — and broad opposition among the GOP to some provisions — Manchin and Toomey are still trying to round up the 60 votes needed to pass it in the Senate.

Overall, 56 percent of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons, which was dropped from the Senate bill when it was first introduced but will receive a vote on the floor. An identical number supports a ban on ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets. But 61 percent of Republicans oppose an assault weapons ban and 54 percent are against a blanket restriction on high-capacity clips, likely dimming the prospects for passage of either measure.

More broadly, most Republicans in the poll say the priority right now should be on protecting gun rights, not on passing new laws aimed at curbing gun violence. Still, nearly half of all Republicans say gun laws do not necessarily interfere with gun rights. Among all Americans who themselves own guns — 30 percent of the adult population — 50 percent say it is possible to enact new limits without slashing rights.

Advocates for new gun laws may have majority support overall, but it is the opponents of such restrictions who have the advantage when it comes to political activism. Among gun owners, 20 percent say they have at some point contacted a public official to express their views on gun control. The number doing so in non-gun households is half as big. Fully 19 percent of gun owners say they have given money to an organization involved with the issue; just 4 percent of those in non-gun households say the same.

Prospects for passage of comprehensive immigration reform appear brighter, in large part because many Republican leaders are looking for ways to reduce the party’s deficit among Hispanic voters. More than seven in 10 Hispanics approve of the president’s handling of immigration, with at least as many saying he is in touch with the concerns of most people. In contrast, two-thirds of Hispanics say Republicans are out of touch.

The bipartisan Senate plan requires tougher border security before the path to legal status can take place. In the poll, half of those who support a path to citizenship say it should be contingent on improvements in border security, but nearly as many — 44 percent — say there should be no such linkage.

There is also a widespread perception among supporters of a new route to legal status for undocumented immigrants that the 13-year path to citizenship outlined in the Senate plan is too long.

Majorities of Americans support other immigration-related measures, from a guest worker program for low-skilled workers to an increased number of visas for highly skilled workers. The highest support — 83 percent — is for a requirement that all businesses check the immigration status of potential employees. One of the more controversial proposals — a reduction in the number of available visas for family members of legal immigrants — draws more opposition than support (41 percent support; 53 percent oppose).

The telephone poll was conducted April 11 to April 14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is director of polling for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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