Mental Health Measures Broadly Backed, but Culture Gets More Blame Than Guns

After the Virginia Tech shootings, vast numbers of Americans support policy changes, including stricter measures to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns and better efforts by universities to identify and counsel disturbed students.

Basic attitudes on gun control, though, remain unchanged, and the public stays sharply divided on the effectiveness of gun laws, with far more citing cultural and social influences as the main causes of gun violence. Nonetheless, 83 percent in this ABC News poll support steps to ensure that states report mentally ill people to the federal gun-sales registry, a measure that might have blocked the Virginia Tech shooter from buying his weapons.

Just as many, 84 percent, support requiring universities to provide stricter screening and counseling for students they suspect of being mentally ill and posing a possible danger to themselves or others. And 88 percent favor requiring to notify parents when they suspect a student of suffering from mental illness.

Schools said current anti-discrimination laws leave them little leverage to require students to obtain counseling, and confidentiality laws limit their ability to report concerns about students' mental health to parents. But some movement has begun: President Bush has initiated a federal study of issues raised by the Virginia Tech tragedy. And lawmakers said Sunday they'd push legislation to provide the states with money to update the instant-check gun registry with the names of people judged to be mentally ill.

Also, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, a majority of Americans, 69 percent, worry that this kind of attack could happen in their own community -- that is, they said it's at least somewhat likely. (Fewer, about a quarter, call it "very" likely.)

Gun Control

Basic attitudes on gun control have not moved significantly after previous notorious gun crimes, and the same holds true now. Overall, 61 percent favor stricter gun control in general -- identical to its level last fall, and almost exactly its average in polls since 1989. Fewer, 41 percent, "strongly" favor anti-gun laws.

Support varies with the specific measure. Sixty-seven percent support banning assault weapons, and 55 percent support banning semi-automatic handguns. But majorities oppose banning concealed weapons or banning all handguns except those used by law enforcement officers. The latter gets just 38 percent support, same as in 2000.

There are big differences among groups on these issues. Women were more apt than men to support stricter gun laws overall, 72 percent to 50 percent. There are sharp political and ideological gaps. And people in gun-owning households -- 45 percent of all Americans -- are much less likely to support gun control measures.

Policy and Politics

Fundamentally, though, the public has compunctions about gun-control measures, which limits the issue's political clout. As in the past, relatively few Americans are convinced that new laws would have a significant impact on violence; many prefer better enforcement to new legislation; and as noted, most view cultural and social factors, rather than the availability of guns, as the prime cause of gun violence.

Further, gun-control opponents, while smaller in number, are disproportionately likely to make it a do-or-die issue in winning their vote.


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