WASHINGTON – Although public support for “gun control” as a general concept remains well below the levels found in the 1990s, several polls in recent days have shown Americans favor some new laws.
The polling indicates some areas where President Barack Obama’s promised push for new measures to combat gun-related violence could prevail. At the same time, the numbers also show deeply entrenched and stark partisan divides on the issue that almost certainly will complicate efforts to gain support from Republicans for new gun measures.
Controlling the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips gets consistent majority support in surveys by the Washington Post/ABC News that were conducted after the Newtown, Conn., massacre last week. The ability to fire large numbers of bullets without reloading has factored into several mass shootings.
A ban on bullets that can penetrate bulletproof vests also gets strong public support in recent surveys. Previous polls have shown strong support for requiring background checks of all people trying to buy guns and other steps to close loopholes in the current system.
By contrast, large majorities oppose more far-reaching steps, such as a ban on private ownership of handguns. The public remains closely divided on the issue of banning semiautomatic guns, with poll results varying in part on the wording of the question.
The surveys suggest that the outcome of the coming debate could depend heavily on whether public attention focuses on the specific proposals or on the general issue of “gun control.”
Overall, public opinion on regulating guns has shown “only modest change” since last week’s killings, according to pollsters at the Pew Research Center based on a new survey of 1,219 Americans conducted Monday through Wednesday.
The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Asked whether it is “more important to control gun ownership” or “more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns,” Americans divided closely, with 49 percent putting a priority on gun control and 42 percent on protecting gun rights. That’s a shift from a 47 percent to 46 percent division just after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July.
In the late 1990s, about two-thirds of Americans said that controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting gun rights, but the percentage backing gun control dropped during the George W. Bush presidency, then fell sharply again when Obama was first elected.
That historical pattern reflects the stark partisan divide on the issue. Among Democrats, 72 percent in the new Pew survey said they put their priority on controlling gun ownership, while only 20 percent sided with protecting gun rights. Among Republicans, the division was the reverse, 27 percent to 69 percent. About one-third of Americans say they have a gun at home. Among Republicans, almost half say so, while among Democrats, only one-quarter do.
Overall, the Pew survey shows that a plurality of Americans, 48 percent to 37 percent, say that gun ownership does more to protect people from crime than it does to put people’s safety at risk.
By contrast, when asked whether allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country safer or more dangerous, Americans by more than 2-to-1 said more dangerous. Even those who put a priority on protecting gun rights divided evenly on the question about assault weapons, an indicator that new restrictions on at least some of those weapons could gain majority support.