Guns and the Court

Jun 26, 2008 8:57am

Most Americans long have supported handgun ownership, and a big majority believes the Constitution allows citizens – not just militias – to possess firearms.

That sentence might be slightly at odds with other things you’ve heard about public attitudes about gun control – specifically, that most Americans favor stricter gun control laws. This, too, is true. What matters is the nature of the gun control that’s proposed.

All this, of course, is pertinent to today’s Supreme Court ruling rejecting the Washington D.C. gun law, which banned handguns and required that other guns be kept unloaded and either fitted with trigger locks or dismantled.

First, a frame of reference: Per our most recent ABC/Post poll, 42 percent of Americans have a gun in the household, a number that’s been stable in recent years. Twenty-five percent have a handgun at home, 23 percent a shotgun, 27 percent a rifle. (Many of course have multiples of these.) So while most Americans don’t have a gun – lots do.

Now, basic attitudes. Specific to the D.C. case, The Washington Post asked this in March, using an old ABC/Post question: "The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows: 'A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' In your opinion does this guarantee only the right of the states to maintain militias, or also the right of individuals to own guns?"


The Second Amendment…Guarantees individual rights to own guns       72%Only guarantees state rights to form militias  20%

This view has been consistent: Gallup got the same result in a similar question in February, and it’s the same as when we first asked it in 2002.

The Post also had asked whether people support a law "that bans private handgun ownership and requires that rifles and shotguns… be unloaded or have a trigger lock." It found 59 percent support. However, we know from other polls that when these have been measured separately, mandatory trigger locks have been very popular, while banning handguns has not.

Consider an ABC News poll on the subject last year: Six in 10 favored "stricter gun control laws." But just 38 percent favored banning the sale of handguns, and 42 percent favored a ban on carrying concealed weapons. By contrast, 67 percent favored banning assault weapons and 55 percent favored banning semi-automatic handguns. In previous ABC/Post polling, support has been broader still for mandatory registration and licensing for handgun owners, background checks and trigger locks. And after the Virginia Tech shootings, eight in 10 backed a national registry meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Views of the Second Amendment are one factor informing attitudes on gun control; there are others. One is some skepticism about whether legislation would do the job; while six in 10 support stricter gun laws in general, fewer, 49 percent, think such laws in fact would reduce gun violence. Instead better enforcement is preferred to new legislation, by 52 to 29 percent.

And perhaps most fundamentally, far more people blame gun violence on the influences of upbringing and culture than on access to firearms. In our 2007 poll, 40 percent blamed "the influence of popular culture" as the main cause of gun violence, and 35 percent pointed to "the way parents raise their children." Just 18 percent pinned it primarily on the availability of guns.


In terms of the politics of the issue, majority agreement that the Second Amendment guarantees individual rights to gun ownership crosses the political spectrum: 83 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of independents and 67 percent of Democrats in the WaPo data. But attitudes on some other gun control issues are more highly partisan. Support for "stricter gun control" in general ranges from 77 percent of Democrats to 58 percent of independents and down to 46 percent of Republicans.

Nonetheless majorities of Democrats and independents alike oppose banning handguns (53 and 54 percent, respectively); this jumps to 73 percent among Republicans.

Democrats are much more likely than others to think stricter gun control would reduce violent crime – 67 percent say so, vs. 47 percent of independents and 33 percent of Republicans. But even Democrats only divide on whether new laws, or better enforcement of existing laws, would do more to achieve that goal. Independents, and more so Republicans, are more apt to favor better enforcement of current laws.

Relatively few in any of these groups cite the availability of guns as the chief cause of gun violence – just under a quarter of Democrats and independents alike, and 6 percent of Republicans.

A final result shows that gun control is more apt to be a voting issue for people who oppose it. Among Americans who support gun control, 66 percent say they could vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on the issue. Among those who oppose gun control, fewer, 49 percent, say the same.

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