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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Public Perspectives: Public Opinion about Gun Policies
Tom W. Smith

Support for Gun Control Measures

From 1996 to 1999, NORC conducted four National Gun Policy Surveys, each of which asked a representative sample of 1,200 Americans their views on three types of gun control policies: general gun control, gun safety, and restriction of criminals' access to guns.

General gun control consists of policies to regulate the manufacture and sale of guns. Such measures include requiring police permits, background checks, waiting periods, or licensing and registration for all gun owners. As Table 1 indicates, large majorities of respondents to the NORC National Gun Policy Surveys support this type of gun control, particularly when it comes to handguns. In the 1999 poll, for example, nearly 81% of respondents supported a background check and a five-day waiting period before a handgun could be purchased; 80% endorsed mandatory registration of handguns; and some 54% to 58% wanted to ban domestic manufacture of "small, easily concealed, and inexpensive handguns."4 Of the 11 general gun control measures that NORC asked about in 1999, the average respondent supported 7.5

Women, residents of large cities and their suburbs, liberals, and Democrats are most likely to support general gun control measures, whereas men, residents of rural areas, conservatives, and Republicans are least likely to support such measures. People with higher levels of educational attainment also are more likely to support general gun control measures. Support does not vary by marital status, age, or income.

The second type of gun control measure, gun safety, consists of policies designed to make guns safer and less accessible to unauthorized users such as children. These measures include establishing federal consumer product safety standards for guns, requiring that guns be childproof, and requiring gun owners to store their guns safely (that is, locked and unloaded). As Table 2 shows, support for safety-related gun control measures is even stronger than support for measures to regulate the sale of guns. Substantial majorities consistently support most safety-related policies, especially federal safety standards for handguns and requirements that guns be childproof. (See the article by Teret and Culross in this journal issue.) Of the 11 gun safety measures that NORC polled in 1999, the average respondent supported 8.6

As with general gun control measures, women, residents of large cities and their suburbs, liberals, and Democrats are most likely to support gun safety measures, whereas men, residents of rural areas, conservatives, and Republicans are least likely to support them. Support does not vary by income or education, but younger adults are more likely to support gun safety measures than are people over age 50.

Finally, the NORC surveys asked about policies aimed at restricting criminals' access to guns. Such measures include prohibiting gun purchases by people convicted of certain crimes and increasing sentences for those convicted of using guns in crime. As Table 3 shows, most Americans want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—even those convicted of misdemeanors—and to punish the criminal misuse of guns. In the 1999 poll, as Table 1 indicates, nearly 70% of the respondents agreed that "the government should do everything it can to keep handguns out of the hands of criminals, even if it means that it will be harder for law-abiding citizens to purchase handguns."

Policies That Draw Public Opposition

One type of gun control policy draws consistent public opposition: the general prohibition of guns. In the 1998 poll, less than 39% of respondents supported restricting the possession of handguns to "the police and other authorized persons"; in 1999, less than 13% wanted a "total ban on handguns." These numbers indicate that the public's support for firearms regulation does have its limits.

Indeed, despite a general desire for stronger firearms regulation, many Americans feel that an armed citizenry makes for a safer community. This attitude can be seen in poll findings regarding "concealed-carry" laws, which allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons in most public places. In recent years, at least 29 states have enacted "shall-issue" concealed- weapons laws, which require states to issue concealed-weapons permits to any adult who passes a criminal background check (and in some cases completes a gun safety course). A narrow plurality of Americans, some 45%, believe that shall-issue concealed-carry laws make communities less safe, whereas 44% feel that these laws make communities safer.7

Strength of Public Support for Gun Control

Contrary to popular beliefs about the strength of support for gun rights, the NORC data indicate that gun control advocates are at least as strong in their support for gun control as opponents are in their opposition. Gun control advocates have engaged in slightly more political actions (such as contacting politicians) than their opponents have. Pro-gun control candidates pick up more votes than anti-gun control candidates in hypothetical congressional races. In addition, people who rank crime and violence as the nation's top problem support more gun control measures than those less concerned about crime.8