May 14, 2008

Public Continues to Oppose Banning Handgun Sales

Summary of Findings

As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.’s ban on handguns, a majority of Americans (59%) say they would oppose a law that banned the sale of handguns. Opposition to a prohibition of handgun sales is up slightly, from 55% a year ago shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, but it represents a more substantial increase from the 1990s, when roughly half of Americans opposed a ban on handguns.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 23-27 among 1,502 Americans, finds that public attitudes about gun control also have shown little change in recent years.

Despite the public’s opposition to a ban on handgun sales, most Americans continue to say that in general it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners. Roughly six-in-ten (58%) say it is more important to control gun ownership while 37% say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns.

Public attitudes about gun control and a handgun ban are divided along political, gender and racial lines. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (73%) oppose a ban on handgun sales, a view shared by 59% of independents and just half of Democrats. Democrats differ over a law to ban handgun sales. A majority of the party’s conservatives and moderates (53%) oppose such a ban; among liberal Democrats, 43% are opposed while half favor a ban on handgun sales.

Opposition to a prohibition on handgun sales is greater among men than women (65% vs. 53%), and among whites than blacks (61% vs. 49%). In addition, though majorities of urban, suburban and rural residents oppose a handgun ban, more rural residents than urban residents oppose a ban. Southerners are more likely to oppose a handgun ban than are Northeasterners or Midwesterners.

Reflecting the partisan differences in views of a ban on handgun sales, 63% of those who favor a ban on handgun sales support Barack Obama in a general election matchup against John McCain; a comparable proportion back Hillary Clinton against McCain (62%). Most Americans who oppose such a ban support McCain in matchups with both Democrats (54% against Obama and 55% against Clinton). In the Democratic primary, supporters of a handgun ban are evenly divided between Obama and Clinton; 47% say they prefer Obama while 43% favor Clinton.

Most Favor Controlling Gun Ownership

Public opinion about gun control has been stable in recent years. Notably, last year’s shootings at Virginia Tech University had little impact on these attitudes. In April 2007, following the shootings, 60% said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun owners’ rights, which had not changed significantly from 2004 (58%).

Support for controlling gun ownership rose somewhat following the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School; in May 1999, about two-thirds of the public said controlling gun ownership was more important than upholding gun owners’ rights (65% in May 1999). But the proportion expressing this view fell sharply the following spring from 66% in March 2000 to 55% in April. Since then, the proportion saying that controlling gun ownership takes precedence over gun owners’ rights has fluctuated modestly.

There are greater partisan and demographic differences in opinions about gun control than in views of a law banning handgun sales. More than twice as many Republicans as Democrats say it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership (59% vs. 23%).

While men divide fairly evenly in views of whether gun rights or gun control is more important, women by greater than two-to-one (64% to 30%) say it is more important to control gun ownership. In addition, fully three-quarters of African Americans (75%) say controlling gun ownership is more important compared with just 54% of whites.