Americans overwhelmingly think there is something Washington can do to reduce gun violence, but pronounced splits on the specific legislative fix underscore the difficulty Congress would face passing a bill.
In the wake of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, 71 percent of respondents in the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll agreed that "there's something that can be done through public policies" that would help seriously reduce mass shootings.
The sentiment was broadly popular across gender, race, and party lines; only 24 percent of respondents disagreed. Among whites, men without college educations were most likely to oppose that statement, but most (64 percent) still supported it.
The results echo President Obama's appeal to the country to not view gun violence as inevitable after a string of high-profile mass shootings. "Sometimes I fear there's a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal," Obama said in a memorial speech on Sunday. Later, he said: "I do not accept that we cannot find a commonsense way to preserve our traditions, including our basic Second Amendment freedoms and the rights of law-abiding gun owners, while at the same time reducing the gun violence that unleashes so much mayhem on a regular basis."
But once the conversation moves to potential actions or solutions, the poll found divisions among Americans on the best way forward.
While 62 percent of respondents said they "would support banning gun purchases for life for all individuals with a history of violence or a police record," as Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis had, 32 percent said they would oppose such a measure. Support for a lifetime ban dropped to 56 percent among political independents and to 53 percent among rural respondents, whose influence is magnified in the Senate.
Large majorities agreed that certain measures would help reduce the incidence of mass shootings:
- 76 percent of respondents said universal background checks would help reduce mass shootings, including at least two-thirds of almost every subgroup;
- 79 percent of people said "expanding availability of mental-health services" would help;
- 70 percent pointed to "tougher enforcement of existing gun laws."
However, elements of division reared on other potential solutions. Asked about an assault-weapons ban, 58 percent of those polled said it would help reduce mass shootings, compared with 40 percent who said it would not. Support was lower among independents, at 55 percent, and lower still at 47 percent among rural voters and 42 percent among Republicans.
A slim majority, 53 percent, said limiting the size of ammunition clips would help prevent mass shootings, but support dropped similarly among some demographic groups whose support would likely be necessary to spur congressional action.
The poll found that 60 percent of respondents thought posting more armed guards in public places would help, though only a slim majority of Democrats and fewer than half of college graduates agreed.
The major hurdle standing before all legislative prospects is that different people's priorities don't align. Among those who responded that multiple proposals could help prevent mass shootings, a plurality—23 percent—said universal background checks would help the most. That was followed by expanded mental-health services at 21 percent and posting more armed guards at 16 percent.
But Republicans rated universal background checks as just the fourth-most-helpful measure to prevent mass shootings, behind mental health, tougher enforcement of existing gun laws, and posting more guards. Rural voters also comparatively discounted the merits of background checks, saying expanding mental-health services and posting more guards would both do more to prevent shootings.
These divisions, on both the utility and the necessity of certain gun-control measures, demonstrate why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid conceded last week that gun-control supporters "don't have the votes" to pass new legislation in the Senate, despite recent events.
Beyond the disagreement among lawmakers over specific provisions, external factors—namely, Obama's sinking approval rating—also play into Washington inability to grapple with this debate.
In the most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted earlier this month, Obama's approval rating dropped to record lows among both college-educated and noncollege whites, and approached his previous lows with independents and Republicans.
As far as Congress is concerned, those numbers also have a lot of importance alongside the issues tested in the new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
The National Rifle Association knows this, and that's why when the gun-lobby powerhouse took its fight against new federal background checks to the airwaves against Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the group didn't take on the policy implications of the senator's bill. The NRA ad attacked him by association: "Senator Manchin is working with President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.… Tell Senator Manchin to honor his commitment to the Second Amendment and reject the Obama-Bloomberg gun-control agenda."
The poll, conducted Sept. 19-22, interviewed 1,003 adults over landline and cell phones. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
This article appears in the September 25, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.