Poll: Most Americans Want To See Congress Pass Gun Restrictions

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 11, 2019 8:23 am

Updated at 2:53 p.m. ET

There is widespread support among Americans — Democrats, Republicans and gun owners alike — for a number of initiatives to curb gun violence they would like to see Congress pass, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll.

Laws that would screen for the types of people who could use a gun are broadly popular, but when it comes to bans on certain types of weapons and ammunition, a divide emerges.

Increasing funding for mental health screenings and treatment, universal background checks, red flag laws and requiring gun licenses all get broad bipartisan support as well as the support of a majority of gun owners. (Red flag laws, also known as extreme-risk protection orders, allow police or family members to request that a judge temporarily remove guns from people who may be a danger to themselves or others.)

"You'd be hard-pressed to find something where the gap between public sentiment and legislative action or inaction is wider because you've got a clear consensus across party lines," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. "The gap is huge, and the congressional crowd is very much out of step with where public opinion is on this. And therein lies the frustration [of many Americans], as the frequency of these shootings increases."

After a summer that saw high-profile mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; and Odessa, Texas; Congress is back, and there is a renewed push to pass gun restrictions. But Republican congressional leadership is deferring to President Trump.

Democrats have made implementing gun restrictions a top priority, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has declined to bring anything to the Senate floor until he is certain of what Trump will support.

"They [the White House] are working on coming up with a proposal that the president will sign. Until that happens, all of this is theatrics," McConnell said on Tuesday after a briefing with White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland.

Trump has wavered on whether he even wants universal background checks passed. Without the president's support, passage of any gun restrictions is highly unlikely.

Bans and overall sentiment on guns prove more divisive

Majorities of Americans support bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons, but there are gaps between the parties, men and women, where people live and whether they own a gun.

While Democrats and independents want Congress to pass them, Republicans do not.

Men and women also divide here: 72% of women are in favor of banning assault-style weapons, while 55% of men are against it.

Gun owners — majorities of whom support Congress passing legislation to increase mental health funding (88%), require background checks (77%), institute a national red flag law (62%) and require licensing before purchase of a gun (57%) — are split on a high-capacity magazine ammunition ban (47% for, 50% against) and against a ban on assault-style weapons (57%).


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Controlling gun violence vs. protecting gun rights

When it comes to the general sentiment around guns and whether it's more important to control gun violence or protect gun rights, a majority of Americans say it's more important to control gun violence (55% to 39%).

That margin has been been consistent since April 2013, when former President Barack Obama declared it a "shameful day for Washington" after Congress failed to pass gun control legislation months after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Again, gender, place and party divides emerge:

— Two-thirds of women (67%) believe it's more important to control gun violence, while a slim majority of men say the opposite (51%).

— Almost two-thirds who live in big cities (63%) say controlling gun violence is more important, as do more than 6 in 10 who live suburbs.

— But a majority who live in rural areas (54%) say it's more important to protect gun rights.

— And the parties are sharply split: 90% of Democrats say control gun violence, while 69% of Republicans say protect gun rights.


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Teachers with guns and buyback programs

A majority of Americans do not think Congress should pass legislation to allow schoolteachers to carry guns, 57% to 37%, and they are split on whether there should be a mandatory buyback program of assault-style weapons (45% are in favor; 46% are against).

Again, there are sharp divides — Democrats and independents are against allowing teachers to carry guns in schools, but Republicans are in favor of it. Independents swing toward Republicans, however, when it comes to mandatory buyback programs of assault-style guns, which they do not think Congress should pass.

Two-thirds of women are against Congress passing legislation to allow teachers to have guns in schools, while men are evenly divided (50% are against it; 45% are in favor).

When it comes to whether Congress should create a mandatory gun buyback program, 55% of women think it should, but 61% of men don't want to see that.

And a strong majority of gun owners (61%) are against buyback programs.


The survey of 1,314 adults was conducted with live callers via telephone by The Marist Poll and has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percentage points. There are 1,160 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points. There are 514 gun owners for a margin of error of 5.8 percentage points.

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Most Americans agree Congress should do something to try to end gun violence. There is wide support for a range of ideas, including keeping tabs on or limiting who can get a gun and making it easier for police and family members to temporarily take guns away from people who may hurt themselves or others - what's known as red flag laws. There's more division on other proposals. We all - we know all of this because of a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro has dug into the numbers. He joins us now. Hey, Domenico.


CHANG: OK. So I want to start where there is some agreement. Let's just start positive for now. What does this poll tell us?

MONTANARO: Well, look. There is a lot of agreement. I mean, we should start right off and say Democrats, Republicans and even gun owners all say that they want Congress to pass legislation to address four things, OK? They want to see an increase in funding for screenings and treatment of mental health.


MONTANARO: They're in favor of background checks. They want licensing for all gun purchases, and they're in favor of a national red flag law.

CHANG: All right. So I know this poll also surveyed a lot of gun owners. What did we learn about how gun owners might be willing to work with - what they'll be able to work with when it comes to gun control legislation?

MONTANARO: Well, here's what we found. Nine in 10 gun owners support increasing funding for mental health screenings and treatment. Three-quarters of them are in favor of background checks, and a majority support red flag laws and gun licensing.

Now, they don't like everything. They're split on whether Congress should ban high-capacity magazines. A majority are against a ban on assault-style weapons, and they're very much against a mandatory gun buyback program for assault weapons that are currently in people's hands.

CHANG: OK. Can we talk a little more about these potential bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines? - 'cause we hear politicians say they're going to push for these. What do these poll results show about how much support there is?

MONTANARO: Well, on both of those items, there's majority support for them overall, but there are pretty sharp political divides. For example, take the assault-style weapons ban. Overall, 57% of those we talked to think that Congress should pass legislation to do that, but that's only because Democrats and Independents are together in favor of that. Only about a third of Republicans, on the other hand, think that's a good idea. On high-capacity magazines, we see a similar divide - Democrats and Independents together, Republicans going the other way.

What the data is telling us, though, is that some Republicans - or Republicans generally are in favor of restrictions, but those restrictions are largely about people, not guns. Remember, you hear the president and the NRA say repeatedly, it's a person who pulls the trigger, not the gun that does. And the things that Republicans in particular are telling us is that they want Congress to screen for the types of people who could use a gun.

CHANG: OK. So it's clear that this poll is showing there is broad support out there for at least some changes. So how much guidance should Congress take from a poll like this to do something?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, whether Congress will do anything actually is very much up in the air. And there's a real sense of urgency for Congress to act, especially among Democrats and some Republicans, after this summer because we saw so many mass shootings...

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: ...I mean - Dayton, El Paso, Odessa, Texas. But here's the thing. This all comes down to President Trump. Congressional Republicans are not going to take a risk passing anything that could be seen by groups like the NRA as anti-gun, unless President Trump comes out and gives them political cover, which he hasn't yet. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not exactly going to bring anything to the floor unless he knows that President Trump is definitely going to sign this. And it's kind of risky of a move for Republicans if they don't come out for these things because, you know, the NRA was outspent for the first time in 2018 by groups that want to see these restrictions in place.

CHANG: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.