Public Opinion and Guns

It's clear that the president has made measures to attempt to reduce gun violence a key issue of his new term. President Obama mentioned Newtown once in his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 21, but the previous week he much more prominently announced a series of executive actions and proposed new legislative actions designed to reduce gun violence. More on these measures can be expected in his forthcoming State of the Union speech.

We know that the public is generally behind Obama's proposals. We asked Americans directly on the day after he released his list of proposed new laws if they wanted their representative in Congress to vote for them or against them as a "set." A majority of 53% said they would want their representative to vote "for" them.

Additionally, using a referendum format, we have new results showing that a majority of Americans would vote "for" all nine of the specific legislative proposals we tested. Support ranges from 54% for limiting the "sale of ammunition magazines to those with 10 rounds or less" to 91% for requiring "criminal background checks for all gun sales".

These views are very political, ranging from 82% support among Democrats to 22% among Republicans for wanting "your representative in Congress" to vote for the set of proposals. Support for the nine initiatives varies widely by politics as well, with Democrats generally more in favor of each. Still, a majority of Republicans favor most of the proposals.

Despite the broad support, as noted, there is variation in support for specific initiatives designed to reduce gun violence. Generally speaking, support is lowest for banning high-capacity ammunition clips, assault weapons, and armor-piercing bullets. Support is highest for background checks, mental health programs, and more security/training.

This variation is exemplified by responses to a forced-choice question that asked Americans to choose between making major changes to laws on sale of guns and ammunition, and making major changes to school security measures and the mental health system. The latter gets the most support, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, in terms of its efficacy in "preventing future school shootings."

Still, all in all, as far as the American public is concerned, Obama is generally on pretty solid ground with his proposals. Interestingly, as was the case with reactions to his healthcare plan, there is more support for the specific elements than for the plan as a whole, although the latter still gets majority support.

The remaining issue is priority. Obama wants Congress to act on these laws. Existing data suggest that while Americans support the laws, the entire issue of guns and gun violence is a lower priority for them. Gun and violence issues were infrequently mentioned in Gallup's most important problem updates in both December and January. Other recent research shows that gun control has a significantly lower priority than other issues, such as the economy. It appears that a key issue for the administration in its efforts to push forward its gun violence reduction agenda -- as far as public opinion is concerned -- is creating a sense of urgency or priority for the proposed new laws.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.