Most Americans think the average citizen should have the right to own a handgun, but they also want the government to regulate gun ownership.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans think the Constitution should guarantee that right. About half say handgun ownership should be “government-controlled” - and half of those who feel that way think those controls should come at the federal level.
Those are the key findings of a national survey of Americans’ attitudes about guns conducted for The Hearst Newspapers by International Communications Research.
One in five Americans owns a handgun. About one-third have owned a handgun at some time in their lives, and almost half have owned some type of gun. Nearly 60 percent of gun owners got their first gun by their 20th birthday.
The attitudes expressed in the poll come from a society which has conflicting views of firearms. There’s wide disagreement, for example, between Northeasterners - who are most anti-handgun and pro-gun-control - and Southerners.
“There’s a competing set of positive and negative symbols attached to guns in this country,” notes Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center - which collects data on public opinion for academics around the country.
“The negative, of course, is that guns are used to commit crimes,” Smith continues. “But on the positive side, you have our history, the frontier.”
Whether it’s because Americans grew up watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood or learning about the Minutemen at Concord, the end result is that most simply believe they have the right to own a gun. It’s as ingrained in the national culture as the idea that people should be free to travel wherever they want.
In fact, Smith says, there’s a great similarity between American attitudes toward guns and automobiles.
“They believe, just like you license drivers, regulate cars and subject them to safety checks, there should be a parallel set of regulations for guns.” But, Smith continues, “If you take it a step further and ask, ‘Should we allow the average, law-abiding citizen to own a gun?’ they’re for it, just as they think the average, safe driver should be allowed to own a car.”
Nearly three out of four Americans oppose banning people from owning handguns (more than 60 percent, however, want to see assault rifles and automatic weapons banned). Half think having a gun in the home makes it safer for the people who live there, versus about one-third who feel the opposite way.
Despite this broad support for keeping gun ownership legal, more than half think it should be “government-controlled.” Of those who favor gun control, one-half would put it completely in the hands of the federal government. Two-thirds of all Americans think the current laws vary too much from state to state.
About half of those polled think the current set of gun regulations aren’t strict, even though slightly more Americans think they’re adequate than think they’re inadequate.
Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University Law School in Virginia, says those last numbers don’t necessarily conflict with each other. Lund, an expert on the Second Amendment to the Constitution - which deals with the right to bear arms - suggested the American people have a “common sense” approach which says they want gun laws, but not strict ones.
“People don’t see major problems being caused by gun control laws, and they don’t see major problems being solved by stronger gun control laws,” Lund says.
Or as Tom Wyld, director of public relations for the National Rifle Association, puts it, “People favor reasonable laws as long as they’re enforced reasonably.” Most people agree, however, on a range of actions they’d like to see government take. Overwhelming majorities think gun companies should be required to put safety devices like trigger locks on their weapons to make sure they can’t be fired by anyone but the owner. They also think gun manufacturers should be subjected to consumer safety regulations which would make sure the weapons work the way they’re supposed to and are put together right.
Brady Law favored
Most think anyone who wants to buy a gun should have to attend a clinic on how to use one properly. Nearly 90 percent agree with the provision of the federal Brady Law requiring that gun buyers wait five days before the sale goes through so that their backgrounds can be checked by law enforcement.
There’s also widespread agreement that felons and known drug users should be barred from owning guns. More than half would take away a convicted drunk driver’s right to have a firearm.
Those national figures supporting gun ownership and government regulation, however, hide a range of divergent views between different regions, those who live in cities and those who don’t, men and women, blacks and whites, and, of course, gun owners and non-gun owners.
People who live in the Northeast (New England and the Mid-Atlantic states) are far less likely to have ever owned a gun than those in the rest of the country. Fewer than one in seven Northeasterners has been a handgun owner, compared with almost one-third of Westerners and 40 percent of Southerners.
The South is the only region where a clear majority say having a gun in your home makes it safer to live there; all the other regions split on that question. Southerners are also more likely to keep guns in several locations (in their cars, for instance, at work or even carried with them) in addition to having them at home.
The Northeast is the only region where a majority of people favor government control of handguns. More than 60 percent of Northeasterners back handgun regulations of some sort. It’s also the only region where more people think gun laws are inadequate rather than adequate.
Those from the Northeast who’ve owned guns are the most likely to have kept them locked up, and - perhaps as a result - they’re only about one-third as likely as the rest of the nation’s gun owners to have had one stolen.
Urban vs. rural
At least some of the difference between attitudes in the Northeast and the rest of the country may be caused by the fact that it’s the most urbanized part of the nation - and city dwellers have very different attitudes about guns than those living in the suburbs or rural communities.
For example, nearly 40 percent of all the Americans who say they’ve ever owned a handgun live in a rural area, even though people in rural communities make up less than 30 percent of the nation’s population. Many cities have tough laws limiting who can own a gun; most rural communities don’t. People who live in the country can often walk down the road to go hunting; city dwellers have to drive, often for hours, to get to places where hunting is legal. So it’s not surprising that people in rural areas are far more likely to have grown up in a culture where guns are commonplace. And that’s reflected in the split in opinions about guns between Americans who live in cities and those who live in rural areas.
For example, more than 60 percent of big-city residents (those in cities with 500,000 people or more) favor gun control; only about 40 percent of rural residents do. Those percentages flip on the question of whether having a gun in the home makes it safer: Sixty percent of rural residents say it does, but only 40 percent of big city people agree.
Perhaps the biggest differences in attitudes toward guns come between men and women. Nearly 60 percent of women favor handgun control, versus 40 percent of men. Three-fourths of men say the Constitution should guarantee us the right to own guns; a little more than half of women think so.
Women are nearly twice as likely to favor banning handguns - although a majority of women oppose such bans.
Women think having a gun in the home makes it less safe to live there; a large majority of men think just the opposite. Women would also be much harsher in determining who should lose their right to own a gun. Less than half of men think someone convicted of drunken driving should be barred from gun ownership, but two-thirds of women feel that way. Only one-third of men would take the right to own a gun away from someone convicted of a misdemeanor (less serious crimes), but almost two-thirds of women would do so.
One other of the national figures, however, may summarize America’s mixed emotions towards guns best of all. Even though a large majority of the people think gun ownership should be a constitutional right and almost half have owned guns at some time, almost two out of every three Americans think their society as a whole views gun owners in a negative way.
xxxx 1. ABOUT THE SURVEY The Hearst Newspapers public opinion poll on Americans’ attitudes toward guns was conducted from Aug. 29-Sept. 7 by International Communications Research of Media, Pa. The survey interviewed 2,016 adults around the nation, using a computer program which gives every phone number in the country an equal chance of being called. Half of those interviewed were men, half women. The percentage of people surveyed in each region of the country reflects its share of the U.S. population. The poll also was broken down so that those interviewed represent correct percentages of the population by race, education, income and whether they live in cities, suburbs or rural communities. The margin of error for the national totals is plus or minus 2.2 percent.
2. INITIATIVE An initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot in Washington state would require an operable trigger lock with every handgun sold, loaned, delivered or transferred in any way to another person. Initiative 676 also would require each gun owner to pass a test to obtain a safety license to lawfully own his gun and would allow police to confiscate handguns that are not legally owned. The license must be renewed every five years.