Jan. 17, 2011 -- Americans divide on the risks posed by the tone of the country's political discourse but approve overwhelmingly of President Obama's attempt to redirect it. Most also hold some hopes of political conciliation in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings.
Seventy-eight percent in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll approve of the way Obama has responded to the shootings, which he addressed in a speech in Tucson last week; that includes 71 percent of Republicans and conservatives alike. Far fewer, 30 percent overall, approve of the response by his political rival, Sarah Palin.
Moreover, there has been a shift -- small but significant -- in a sense that Obama and the Republicans in Congress may find a way to work together on important issues in the year ahead. Fifty-five percent are optimistic that this may happen, up from 48 percent in an ABC News-Yahoo News poll earlier this month, before the attack occurred.
In policy terms, this survey, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, finds no shift toward support for gun control legislation. Indeed, following the course of gun attitudes more generally, support for banning semi-automatic handguns actually is lower than it was after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007.
At the same time, a 57 percent majority supports another proposal, banning high-capacity ammunition clips, which were used in Tucson. And there's vast agreement on a need for further efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people with a history of mental illness or drug abuse.
The public overwhelmingly sees the country's political discourse as negative in tone; 82 percent say so, including three in 10 who say it's "angry." Still there's a division, 49-49 percent, on whether it has created a climate that could encourage political violence.
On the Tucson shootings specifically, 54 percent of Americans do not think the political discourse contributed to the incident, while 40 percent think it did. Those who do see a connection divide on whether it was a strong factor.
GOP Gets More of the Blame
The survey more generally finds blame for the political tone spread across a variety of groups. Half the public says the Tea Party political movement and its supporters, as well as political commentators on both side of the ideological divide, have "crossed the line" in terms of attacking the other side.
Forty-five percent say the Republican Party and its supporters have done the same; fewer, 39 percent, say so about the Democratic Party and its supporters, reflecting the Democrats' continued broader allegiance overall.
On all of these, there are sharp divides politically and ideologically, as detailed below.
Specifically, in terms of the Jan. 8 shootings, 78 percent of Americans, as noted, approve of Obama's response, and 51 percent approve "strongly." That's the highest rating on a single issue Obama has received during his presidency, although he had 80 percent approval just before taking office for his handling of the transition.
While these are rare ratings, other presidents have gone as high or higher on specific issues: George W. Bush for handling terrorism, Bill Clinton for his transition, George H. W. Bush for handling the Persian Gulf War and Ronald Reagan for a 1987 summit with the Soviets.
Far fewer Americans but still more than half, 53 percent, approve of the way the news media have responded to the Tucson shootings. Trailing these, 30 percent approve of the way Palin has responded, with 14 percent "strongly" approving. Forty-six percent instead disapprove of Palin's response, in which she rejected as "blood libel" suggestions that the tone of political discourse may have contributed to the attack. A substantial 24 percent have no opinion.
Fifty-two percent of Americans in this survey favor stricter gun control laws in general; 45 percent are opposed. That fairly close division is a shift from before fall 2008. In 2006 and 2007 alike, for instance, 61 percent supported stricter gun control. The decrease in support may have been associated with the impending election of a Democratic president and Congress.
The 9-point drop in support for gun control from 2007 to now is mirrored in views specifically on banning semi-automatic handguns, which automatically re-load each time the trigger is squeezed. Fifty-five percent supported banning such weapons then, compared with 48 percent now. Likewise, there has been a 7-point decline in support for banning the sale of handguns overall, from 38 percent in 2007 to 31 percent now.
Women, Dems Favor More Gun Control
Views on gun control tend not to shift in tandem with highly publicized gun crimes. As well as continuing that precedent, these results reflect two basic sentiments: broad agreement that the Constitution guarantees a right of gun ownership, and a general preference -- by 57-29 percent in this survey -- for better enforcement of existing laws rather than creation of new ones.
As noted, there are specific gun control items that win favor; not only do 57 percent support banning high-capacity ammunition clips, 46 percent lean that way "strongly," far outstripping strong opposition, 29 percent.
As is typical, support for more gun control legislation in general, and nationwide bans on semi-automatic weapons, handguns and high-capacity clips in particular, is higher among women than among men, among Democrats than Republicans and among liberals than conservatives. Support for all except banning handguns entirely also is higher among college-educated adults.
Gun ownership is a factor in overall sentiment. Forty-four percent of Americans say they or someone in their household owns a gun. In this group, 34 percent support stricter laws overall; that rises to 68 percent in non-gun households.
Most striking is support for greater efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who've been treated for mental illness or drug abuse. After the Virginia Tech attack, 83 percent supported a law requiring states to report mentally ill people to the gun registry database. In this survey, even in a time of sensitivity about the deficit, an identical 83 percent support increased federal funding to make this happen.
Sixty-three percent support the proposal strongly, an unusual level of strong sentiment. And overall support includes 87 percent of gun owners and political conservatives, as well as broad majorities in other groups.
As noted, somewhat fewer but still 71 percent also support federal funding to get the names of drugs abusers into the gun registry; nearly half, 49 percent, strongly favor the proposal. Supporters include about two-thirds of gun owners and conservatives alike.
The Tucson attack occurred at a constituent event hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was badly wounded by a gunshot to the head. Six others were killed, a child and the state's top federal judge among them. It has been reported that the alleged gunman was rejected for military service because of suspicions of drug use, and was expelled from community college last fall after erratic behavior raised questions about his psychological state.
While there's bipartisan agreement on a variety of these views -- from Obama's response to the gun registry efforts -- there are others with sharp partisan and ideological gaps.
Six in 10 Democrats, for example, think the political tone could encourage violence; that declines to 47 percent of independents and 34 percent of Republicans. Likewise, it's 66 percent among liberals compared with 40 percent among conservatives. And on the Tucson incident itself, 59 percent of liberals and 51 percent of Democrats think the tone of political discourse played some role; 28 percent of conservatives and 27 percent of Republicans agree.
While Obama's response largely transcends partisanship (as noted, 71 percent of Republicans approve, as do 91 percent of Democrats) Palin does less well among all groups, and with greater divisions. Even among Republicans and conservatives, fewer than half, 48 percent, approve of her response to the Tucson incident, as do 32 percent of independents, fewer than a quarter of moderates and liberals and 15 percent of Democrats.
This ABC News-Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13-16, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,053 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.