Huge Majority Thinks Washington Can Reduce Gun Violence

But the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll finds sharp divisions over which policy solutions would work best.

The American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff as ordered by President Barack Obama following the deadly shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard, Tuesday morning, Sept. 17, 2013, in Washington.
National Journal
Scott Bland
Sept. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

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.

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