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
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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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