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Americans Largely Support Gun Restrictions To 'Do Something' About Gun Violence

Guns for sale at a gun show in Naples, Fla.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Guns for sale at a gun show in Naples, Fla.

After the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, gun control is again at the forefront of the political conversation.

President Trump has expressed openness to a federal red flag law and for "meaningful" background checks.

"Frankly, we need intelligent background checks," Trump told reporters Friday. He added, "On background checks, we have tremendous support for really common sense, sensible, important background checks."

What all that means exactly isn't clear yet. What is clear, from public opinion polling, is that Americans believe gun violence is a problem, and they support more restrictions on guns. That sentiment spilled over Sunday night when a frustrated crowd chanted "do something" at Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine following the mass shooting in Dayton. They eventually drowned out his attempt to roll out his plan to curb gun violence.

But momentum for gun restrictions has fallen apart in the past — stymied by groups like the National Rifle Association — and there doesn't yet appear to be a clear legislative strategy this time around. President Trump and Republicans will have a choice to make.

There is public support for universal background checks for gun purchases, extreme risk protection orders (also called red flag laws), gun licensing, assault-weapons bans and bans on high-capacity magazines. But many of these issues are hotly polarizing. While they mostly enjoy support from Democrats and independents, Republicans are not always on board.

Here's a look at where things stand, measure by measure, based on the latest polling and on Capitol Hill:

Americans overall support stricter gun laws

A solid majority of Americans say they are in favor of stricter gun laws in the United States — 61% said so in a May Quinnipiac poll. But the breakdown by party is illuminating – 91% of Democrats think gun laws should be stricter, as do 59% of independents, but just 32% of Republicans.

Almost three-quarters (73%) in the poll also said more needs to be done to address gun violence.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

A February NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found less support for stricter laws covering gun sales, but still a majority (51%) were in favor. Another 36% said the laws should be kept as they are.

But, like Quinnipiac, when people were asked if they thought it was more important to control gun violence or protect gun rights, 58% said control gun violence, the highest in at least six years. Just 37% responded that it was more important to protect gun rights.

Universal background checks

The president says he spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., this week. Trump said McConnell is "totally on board" with background checks. Trump also spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who want background checks passed together with red flag legislation. (More on that below.)

McConnell said in an interview with a Kentucky radio station that any effort has to be bipartisan. On universal background checks, he acknowledged "there's a lot of support for that," that the issue will be "front and center, as we see what we can come together and pass."

According to the polls, there are few issues with as broad support as universal background checks — 89% overall said they supported background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales, in a July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Even 84% of Republicans are in favor of them, according to the poll. Another example: that May Quinnipiac poll had support for requiring background checks for all gun buyers at 94% overall (98% for Democrats, 94% independents, 92% Republicans).

It has been a similar story with most polling for years about universal background checks. The National Rifle Association, however, has been against them. Nothing has passed federally yet, but the president has said he would take the organization on.

But with the NRA facing internal financial problems and pro-gun-restrictions groups outspending it for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections, there's a question of whether Republicans are feeling the same kind of pressure from the group as in years past.

Red flag laws, or extreme risk protection orders

Some on Capitol Hill, like Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, have already restarted a push for a federal red flag law.

These laws allow police to get what's known in many places as an extreme risk protection order and temporarily seize guns if someone reports seeing something that gives them concern that someone who owns a gun may be a risk to themselves or others.

More than a dozen states have passed varying forms of red flag laws, and they have been shown to be particularly effective at preventing suicides.

There has not been a lot of polling on red flag laws, but polling from some partisan outfits or funded by organizations that support these laws has found support for them.

One of the better national pollsters is the Democratic firm Hart Research (the Democratic half of the pollsters who conduct the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll). They polled on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun restrictions advocacy group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is no friend of the gun industry.

The poll of 1,200 likely voters before the 2018 midterm elections found that 89% wanted Congress to pass a red flag law, and 75% said they were more likely to support a candidate in favor of them.

An online poll conducted by YouGov Blue (a division of YouGov but serving Democratic and progressive clients) also found support for red flag laws, but to a lesser degree. The poll from April found 69% in favor of red flag laws, including 50% of Republicans.

It's a similar story on the state level. EPIC/MRA (a good polling outfit) in Michigan conducted a survey for the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and found that 70% were in favor of red flag laws. That included 78% of Democrats, 67% of independents and 64% of Republicans.

In Colorado, a Keating Research survey found 81% in favor of red flag laws, including 62% who were "strongly" in favor. By party, it was 92% of Democrats, 73% of Republicans and 79% of unaffiliated voters.

While there is generally Democratic support for such a law, Sen. Schumer, D-N.Y., wants red flag legislation married to universal background checks, because that has failed previously in the Senate — despite being widely popular.

Gun licensing

Three-quarters (77%) said in the May Quinnipiac poll that they supported requiring individuals to obtain a license before being able to purchase a gun.

That included 65% of Republicans, so this is a popular idea, but there is little talk about it currently on Capitol Hill in response to the latest mass shootings.

Assault-style weapons ban

A majority — 57% — of Americans said they were in favor of a ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15, according to the July NPR poll. But while that's a solid majority, this is a very polarizing topic.

For example, 83% of Democrats said they were in favor of the ban, as were 55% of independents. But just 29% of Republicans said they thought it was a good idea. That's a whopping 54-point gap.

The Quinnipiac poll had support for a ban slightly higher, at 63%. It had GOP support 10 points higher at 39%, still a minority, and independents 8 points higher at 63%.

Assault-style weapons were banned in the 1990s during the Clinton presidency, and it's something that former President Bill Clinton has now come out and said he believes should be instituted again. But there's little appetite on Capitol Hill among Republicans for reinstating the ban.

High-capacity magazines

The February NPR poll also found two-thirds — 65% — thought banning high-capacity ammunition clips would make a difference in reducing gun violence.

While 86% of Democrats and 59% of independents said they thought it would make a difference, Republicans were split with 51% saying they didn't think it would make a difference.

That's been part of the conversation previously, notably with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, but it went nowhere because of GOP and NRA opposition.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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