The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Experts and the public agree on how to stop gun violence. Politicians don’t.

People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas after it was fired upon late Sunday from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. (David Becker/Getty Images)
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Despite its reputation as an intractable, deeply divisive issue, there's a lot of agreement among the American public on gun-control measures.

The New York Times, for instance, recently surveyed Americans on whether they supported 29 different gun regulations mostly intended to reduce homicides — from familiar policies such as background checks and bans on assault-style weapons to more obscure ones such as limits on the frequency of purchases.

All but one of those policies had majority support, and most were backed by strong majorities.

Universal background checks? 86 percent support. Universal licensing requirements? 78 percent. Preventing gun sales to people with prior violent-crime convictions? 83 percent support. Experts polled by the New York Times ranked these among the most effective ways to reduce the toll of gun violence in the United States.

Other polling has shown that on some of these measures, such as national gun registries and bans on assault-style weapons, there are broad partisan differences. But overall, they were still supported by more than two-thirds of respondents in the Times survey.

Two measures on the list generally thought of as expanding or protecting gun owners' rights — stand-your-ground laws and laws allowing concealed-carry permits to cross state lines — were also supported by majorities of respondents.

This widespread public support stands in sharp contrast with the situation among national political leaders, who are much more polarized on the issue. Despite repeated attempts following national tragedies, Congress has been unable to pass even the most modest measures on the list of proposals.

As on so many other issues, politicians' polarization on gun control is trickling down to the level of American voters as well. Back in the 1970s, for instance, gun control wasn't a particularly partisan issue, according to historical data from the General Social Survey. As recently as 1991, the percentages of Democrats and Republicans saying people should have to obtain a police-issued permit before buying a gun were nearly identical.

By 2016, Democratic support for that idea was essentially unchanged from its 1991 level. But Republican support had dropped by more than 20 percentage points.

Here’s how frustrated Democrats have responded to Las Vegas

As Clemson University political scientist Steven V. Miller noted Monday, “We're not polarized on gun control but our leaders are.” And because public opinion tends to follow elite opinion, “our mass public opinion is gradually conforming to the polarization of opinion at the elite-level. We'll collectively soon be part of the problem.”

For now, though, there's still bipartisan consensus on most gun-control measures. On the question of police-issued permits, for instance, 57 percent of Republicans still say they'd support such a proposal.

Experts polled by the New York Times overwhelmingly said licensing requirements would help reduce gun crime. By contrast, experts said measures to expand gun protections, such as stand-your-ground laws and concealed-carry reciprocity, were the least likely to have a positive influence on homicide rates.