Poll: Most Americans support new gun-control measures after Newtown massacre

President Obama aggressively pushed his debt-ceiling agenda Monday during the final news conference of his first term. The president also laid out his plans to meet with Vice President Biden this week to discuss their initiative to curb gun violence. (The Washington Post)
January 14, 2013

Most Americans support tough new measures to counter gun violence, including banning assault weapons and posting armed guards at every school, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

More than half of Americans — 52 percent in the poll — say the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has made them more supportive of gun control; just 5 percent say they are now less apt to back tighter restrictions. Most also are at least somewhat worried about a mass shooting in their own community, with concern jumping to 65 percent among those with school-age children at home.

The findings, which also show broad bipartisan support for mandatory background checks to purchase firearms at gun shows, came as President Obama said Monday that he will lay out specific White House proposals on gun-control legislation and executive actions this week.

Obama has pledged to champion broad new reforms in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 26, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown one month ago. He is scheduled to receive a list of proposals Tuesday from Vice President Biden, who is leading a task force on gun violence.

But most congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose restrictive new measures, such as an assault-weapons ban.

Gun control takes a back seat to the economy, the deficit and taxes

Administration aides have said that the president is likely to call for renewing the ban on the most powerful rifles, even in the face of heavy opposition from the National Rifle Association. In the poll, 58 percent of Americans support the ban, which expired in 2004 after 10 years; 39 percent oppose it.

“My starting point is not to worry about the politics but to focus on what makes sense and what works,” Obama said at a news conference Monday. “What should we be doing to make sure our children are safe and reduce incidents of gun violence? We can do it in a way that comports with the Second Amendment.”

The president declined to be specific when asked what recourse he would have if lawmakers rejected the ban, saying that “members of Congress must have a debate and examine their own conscience.”

A question of priorities

While the poll showed cross-party support for some potential policies, there was a sharp divide on others, and particularly over how much emphasis the administration and Congress should place on addressing gun issues.

Democrats and Republicans both see the economy as the clear top priority for federal action, but while most Democrats also rank gun control as a high priority, few Republicans or independents agree. Most Republicans say stricter gun laws should be lower on the list or not a priority at all.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) on Monday called on Obama and Congress to enact strict new gun-control measures in the wake of Newtown. And Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) unveiled plans for an assault-rifle ban and tougher gun licensing requirements in his state. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) worked out a tough gun-control package with state legislators, who moved closer to passing the proposal Monday night.

Recent polls have shown broadly positive sentiment for the NRA, but the new survey reveals a far more mixed verdict on its leadership. Some 36 percent of Americans express favorable views of the group’s leaders, while 44 percent say they have unfavorable impressions. A sizable share, 20 percent, say they have no opinion.

A plurality of all Americans, 38 percent, think the organization has “too much influence” over the country’s gun-control laws. Twenty-four percent see the NRA as having “too little” sway, while 30 percent say it has the right amount.

In the poll, 44 percent of Americans say there is at least one gun at home, and people in households with firearms are far less supportive of a variety of gun-control measures than are those in non-gun households. Some 45 percent of gun-owning households support a ban on assault weapons, and only 15 percent say the administration and Congress should make stricter laws a top priority.

Still, majorities in households with firearms support background checks at gun shows (86 percent); background checks for ammunition purchases (76 percent), an idea recently proposed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.); a new federal gun database (62 percent); and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (55 percent).

Support for school guards

The NRA last month offered its own proposal to curb mass shootings: placing armed police or trained security guards at the nation’s 100,000 schools — an idea favored by 55 percent of the public, according to the Post-ABC poll. Those with children at home are more apt than those without to want armed guards at schools, but they are no more or less likely to support a range of other initiatives.

For most potential policies, support is far stronger among Democrats than among Republicans; the exception is placing armed guards in schools, an idea favored by more Republicans.

The poll shows broad support among Americans for establishing a database to track all gun sales (71 percent) and for a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (65 percent). Fifty-one percent support a ban on semiautomatic handguns.

Some of the policy disagreements reflect diverse opinions about the causes of gun violence. Overall, 56 percent say inadequate treatment of mental illness contributes “a great deal” to gun violence, and the same percentage say insufficient background checks are a major cause. Next on the list is a lack of individual responsibility among firearm owners. Fewer — 38 percent — see violent movies, television programs and video games as playing a big role, although more Republicans than Democrats say entertainment is a main contributor to gun violence.

In addition to partisanship and gun ownership, perception of the threat of mass shootings is related to support for new measures. Among those who are very worried about a mass shooting where they live, 65 percent back a nationwide ban on semiautomatic handguns. In a mirror image, 65 percent of those who are not concerned oppose such a ban.

The poll was conducted Jan. 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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

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