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Americans of both parties overwhelmingly support ‘red flag’ laws, expanded background checks for gun buyers, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in early September explored Americans' opinions on gun issues in the wake of several mass shootings. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Americans across party and demographic lines overwhelmingly support expanded background checks for gun buyers and allowing law enforcement to temporarily seize weapons from troubled individuals, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, as President Trump and Republicans face fresh pressure to act.

Although the poll finds a continued partisan divide on more far-reaching gun-control proposals, public opinion is firmly behind Democrats’ push for action as Congress returned to Washington on Monday. More Americans say they trust congressional Democrats over Trump to handle the nation’s gun laws, 51 percent to 36 percent, with independents siding with Democrats by a 17-point margin — a divide that could have political ramifications for the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

Democrats and allied activists have been trying to kick-start a national push for new federal gun restrictions for weeks, since mass shootings last month in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. Urgency dissipated as a six-week congressional recess wore on, but a deadly rampage in West Texas on Aug. 31 has reignited the issue.

The Post-ABC poll finds 86 percent of Americans support implementing “red flag” provisions allowing guns to be taken from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others. And 89 percent support expanding federal background checks to cover private sales and gun-show transactions. Both measures are supported by at least 8 in 10 Republicans, white evangelical Christians, members of gun-owning households and other traditionally conservative groups.

More far-reaching restrictions also have majority support, the survey finds, albeit by more-modest margins. Six in 10 support a nationwide ban on gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

A 56 percent majority supports a nationwide ban on sales of assault weapons, and nearly all who support such a ban also back a mandatory federal buyback program for those weapons — a notion that gun rights advocates have decried as government confiscation and that has been at the fringes of the national gun debate until recently.

Trump has wavered on the issue throughout his presidency, endorsing tough measures after a mass shooting at a Florida high school in February 2018 and then abandoning expanded background checks and other proposals as the powerful National Rifle Association expressed its strong opposition. Late last month, Trump backed away from tougher restrictions, telling NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre that universal background checks were off the table.

Trump tells NRA chief that universal background checks are off the table

Trump said last week that he expected to present a “package” of proposals, but he suggested that those proposals would be aimed at the mentally ill.

“I support keeping guns out of the hands of sick people,” he said Wednesday, adding that background checks “wouldn’t have stopped any of the last few years’ worth of these mass shootings, which is a problem.”

The House passed two bills expanding federal background checks in February — both face a veto threat from Trump — and party leaders are pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to act on them. This week, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to advance a bill encouraging states to create “red flag” laws as well as other gun-control measures.

Although McConnell declined to heed calls from Democrats last month to bring his chamber back from the recess to act on guns, Democrats insist they can persuade Republican leaders to break the cycle of tragedy and inaction.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pushed Trump and McConnell at a news conference Monday to bring one of the House-passed background-check bills up for a quick vote, calling it a necessary precursor to any further gun legislation.

“Two people in Washington can make sure the background-checks bill passes: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell,” Schumer said. “It is on their shoulders. They can’t escape that responsibility.”

McConnell said in a Wednesday interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt that he is looking to Trump to take the lead on any legislation responding to the violence. “If the president is in favor . . . and I know that if we pass it, it’ll become law,” McConnell said, “I’ll put it on the floor.”

He did not address gun legislation Monday in his first remarks on the Senate floor, instead discussing government funding and presidential nominations.

A stark gender divide

The poll finds a stark gender divide on the gun issue. More than two-thirds of women say they are worried about a mass shooting in their communities, compared with just more than half of men. Women are also 20 points more likely than men to be confident that passing stricter gun-control laws would reduce mass shootings.

Women are more than twice as likely to trust Democrats in Congress over Trump to handle gun laws, 59 percent to 28 percent. Men are split more evenly on this question, with 44 percent trusting Trump and 41 percent trusting Democrats.

There are some cautionary signals for gun-control supporters: More than 7 in 10 Americans across party lines are confident that improving mental-health monitoring and treatment would reduce mass shootings, but there is less agreement that passing stricter gun-control laws would do the same. Majorities of Democrats (87 percent) and independents (55 percent) are confident new gun restrictions would have that effect, while a minority of Republicans agree (34 percent).

Support for expanded background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons remains largely at the same level as in early 2013 — during the last major push for congressional action, following a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That push, focused on closing background-check loopholes, failed.

Since then, however, Americans’ anxiety about a mass shooting happening in their communities has ticked up, with 6 in 10 saying they are greatly or somewhat worried about that possibility. A partisan divide on that question has widened: Democrats and independents are more worried now than they were in 2013, while Republicans are less worried.

The Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone from Sept. 2 to 5 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, with 65 percent reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points overall and is larger among subgroups.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, Democrats have focused on background checks as the most urgent and appropriate response to mass shootings, even though the perpetrators in many incidents purchased their weapons from licensed gun dealers and passed background checks. But House Democrats decided more needed to be done after shootings in Gilroy, Calif., on July 28, El Paso on Aug. 3 and Dayton on Aug. 4.

Besides the red-flag bill, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to advance a proposed federal ban on high-capacity magazines and a third bill that would bar people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from being eligible to purchase firearms — measures that go beyond the party’s previous comfort zone.

House panel’s plans to advance gun-control bills delayed by Hurricane Dorian

“Democrats understand that gun safety is America’s new kitchen-table political issue, and this is something that you would not have seen just a few years ago,” said Peter Ambler, executive ­director of Giffords, an ­anti-gun-violence group founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after she was badly wounded in a 2011 attack that left six others dead.

A growing number of Democrats — and a few Republicans — have signed on to a bill authored by Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) reimposing a version of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Sept. 25 on the bill — a significant step for Democratic leaders who have long treated an assault-weapons ban as too politically risky. 

In a sign of the changing politics, several of those joining the assault-weapons bill are freshman Democrats who won suburban districts previously represented by Republicans. “I don’t really see any reason for ordinary citizens to own weapons of war,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who represents a moderate Lehigh Valley district.

Republican reservations

The obstacles continue to be Republicans who argue that the Democratic bills would infringe on law-abiding gun owners’ rights while doing little to prevent the actual causes of mass shootings. That is a perspective shared with a highly motivated slice of the party’s conservative base and promoted by its most aggressive advocacy group, the NRA. 

“My concern is that what’s being proposed is not going to solve the root-cause problem,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told reporters in mid-August when asked about red-flag laws.

But there is a rising concern in the GOP that the party is putting itself at risk if it does not take action to address the bloodshed.

“If we’re not willing to do the common-sense stuff, probably legislation will occur that we’ll regret, that will actually, I think, infringe upon Second Amendment rights down the road, so I’m going to be one that’s going to look to try to do something,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Friday.

Several Republicans have expressed openness to federal action on red-flag laws, which are also known as “extreme-risk protection orders,” including influential lawmakers such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Daines suggested instead that juveniles who commit serious crimes or make felonious threats be prevented from purchasing weapons as adults — a proposal that is getting serious consideration for inclusion in the White House package.

Rachael Bade, Scott Clement and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.

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