The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protect guns or combat violence? 7 in 10 Republicans say the former.

Republicans prioritize protecting guns more than actual gun owners

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on gun violence on Capitol Hill on June 8. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The debate over gun ownership in the United States is complicated and intricate. Every argument has some nuance; every proposal includes some asterisks. Both sides often see their position in absolute terms, a view that the other side is always quick to note ignores actual boundaries.

It is, in other words, a debate that can defy simple categorization. In a new poll conducted by Marist for NPR and PBS NewsHour, though, the pollsters drew an interesting and useful line for considering the debate over guns and gun violence.

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Respondents were asked which they felt was more important: protecting gun rights or controlling gun violence. It’s a simple dichotomy — admittedly more simple than the debate itself but one that allows for gradation. Is it more important to protect the right of people to own guns, or is it more important to address the spate of firearm-related deaths in the United States?

Overall, Americans were more likely to say that controlling gun violence is more important, 59 to 35 percent. Among gun owners, as you might expect, protecting gun rights was the majority position, although only barely.

The biggest divide, in fact, wasn’t on gun ownership. It was by party. Democrats said that controlling gun violence was more important by a nearly 90-point margin. Independents said the same, more narrowly. Among Republicans, though, more than two-thirds said protecting gun ownership was more important — a higher level of support than even among gun owners themselves.

Other divides in the poll similarly align with partisanship. White Americans without a college degree — a heavily Republican group — are more likely to say that it’s more important to protect gun rights. So are Americans who live in rural areas, in part, it’s safe to assume, because they’re also more likely to own a firearm.

Given that the debate over gun violence is at this moment centered on the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Tex., it’s interesting to point out that people without children in the house more heavily prioritized controlling gun violence than did parents with young children at home. Less surprising is the gender divide, with men being more likely than women to say that protection of gun rights is more important.

Marist asked the same question in 2013. At that time, the nation was about evenly divided in identifying which focus was more important. What has changed since then? Democrats have become far more likely to say that combating gun violence is more important.

Independents have flipped from being more likely to prioritize gun rights to focusing on controlling gun violence.

What has changed since 2013? Polarization has increased, certainly. But so has the number of gun deaths in the United States. Gun violence has increased and mass shooting events, which tend to crystallize sentiment on gun ownership, have continued unabated.

The result is a broader sense that reducing gun violence should be considered more important than protecting the rights of gun owners — except among members of the party that controls half of the Senate and nearly half of the House.