As President Obama readies a new push for gun-control legislation, he will rely on the support of the same political coalition that thrust him into a second term last November: young people, minorities, and college-educated women.
A slim majority of Americans, 51 percent, believe that controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting the right of Americans to own firearms, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
But beneath that divided topline were far more telling cleavages. The survey showed that the gun-control debate in America has split along the same fault lines—by age group, ethnicity, gender, even region—that marked the 2012 presidential contest between Obama and Mitt Romney.
As the gun-control debate shifts from the White House to Capitol Hill, with Vice President Joe Biden set to unveil his task-force proposals on Tuesday, the question is whether Obama can mold his winning electoral coalition into a successful legislative one. The challenge will be particularly acute in the GOP-controlled House, where most Republicans represent the kind of voters who are resistant to new gun restrictions.
In the survey, those same younger Americans, between the ages of 18 and 29, who fueled Obama’s rise and reelection, were the most supportive (56 percent) among all age groups of the focus on stricter gun control.
Similarly, minorities, another key part of the Obama coalition, were overwhelmingly in favor of prioritizing gun control over gun rights, the poll showed. A full 69 percent of nonwhites preferred focusing on gun control; in contrast, 52 percent of whites preferred to focus on protecting the right to own guns.
Obama struggled mightily during 2012 among white men without a college degree; the push for gun control falters with that group, as well. A solid 62 percent of them said the focus should be on gun rights.
The poll found that the gun-control movement has made inroads among one key swing constituency that Obama and Romney fought hard to win over: educated white women. Two-thirds of white women with a college degree said they preferred to focus on gun control; 30 percent favored focusing on gun rights.
Overall, there was an enormous gender gap: 55 percent of men prioritized protecting gun-owners’ rights; only 35 percent of women felt that way.
As with so many American campaigns these days, the real fight is for the suburbs. Urban dwellers strongly prioritized gun control, 62 percent to 34 percent. Rural residents were aligned with gun rights, 64 percent to 33 percent.
In the battleground suburbs, gun control was ranked more important by a thin plurality, 48 percent to 45 percent.
The regional differences that marked the presidential campaign are also apparent in the gun debate. The heavily Democratic Northeast—the site of the gruesome elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that sparked the renewed gun debate—was the region most in favor of focusing on gun control (62 percent). The South—the most Republican region in the nation—was the only part of the country where a majority (51 percent) preferred to focus on gun rights. The Midwest (47 percent for gun rights, 46 percent for gun control) and West (41 percent to 53 percent) fell in between.
The Congressional Connection Poll of 1,001 adults was conducted Jan. 10-13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The margin of error for particular subgroups is larger.
The survey also tested which particular gun-control proposals are popular—and which are political duds.
The biggest loser, politically, was the idea of banning possession of handguns except among law enforcement. It received the support of only 28 percent of Americans; 70 percent were opposed. Even 58 percent of Democrats didn’t like the idea. Not surprisingly, it has been entirely absent from the current political debate.
The most popular proposal was to ban bullets that “explode or are designed to penetrate bullet-proof vests.” It received the support of 58 percent of respondents, up 2 points from a December Pew Research Center poll.
A majority also favored eliminating high-capacity ammunition clips with more than 10 bullets. That proposal, which has already been introduced in the 113th Congress, was supported by 56 percent of the public, compared with 41 percent opposed.
The proposal that most divided respondents was whether to ban semiautomatic weapons. It was supported by 46 percent of the public and opposed by 51 percent.
Interestingly, both proposals that the Pew Research Center had above 50 percent support in December—banning large ammo clips and exploding bullets—saw their support level rise by 2 to 3 percentage points in the January Congressional Connection Poll.
The two proposals that Pew showed in December at below 50 percent support—banning handguns and semiautomatic weapons—saw their level of opposition rise by the same margin.
In other words, both the support for the most popular gun-control measures and the opposition to the unpopular ones appears to be hardening.
Overall, the prioritization of gun control over protecting gun rights (the topline 51 percent to 45 percent) represents a nearly five-year high compared with the Pew Research Center’s past surveys.
The previous high was in April 2007, in the wake of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, when the preference for gun control climbed to 60 percent.
While a recent high, the current 51 percent figure does not represent the major shift in public opinion that gun-control advocates had hoped for after Newtown. Since Obama took office, the figure has floated between 45 and 50 percent, according to Pew. In early 2000, it had been as high as 66 percent.
This article appears in the Jan. 15, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Poll: Obama’s Base Supports Gun Control.