March 23, 2010

Public Divided Over State, Local Laws Banning Handguns

Since 2008, Increased Support for Gun Rights

Overview

The public is divided over whether state and local governments should be able to pass laws banning the sale and possession of handguns. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few months on the constitutionality of a 28-year-old Chicago law prohibiting handgun ownership in that city.

Half of the public (50%) says that state and local governments should not be able to pass laws barring the sale or possession of handguns in their jurisdictions, while 45% say they should be able to pass such laws.

Previous Pew Research surveys have found broad opposition to a law banning the sale of handguns. In April 2008, 59% said they opposed a law banning handguns while 36% favored such a law. There was less opposition to a law banning handgun sales in 2000 and the late 1990s. In March 2000, 47% opposed a law banning handgun sales while the same percentage favored it.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 10-14 among 1,500 adults, finds the public is evenly split over whether it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners (46%) or to control gun ownership (46%). That is largely unchanged from April 2009 (49% control gun ownership vs. 45% protect gun rights). But from 1993 to 2008, majorities had consistently said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right to own guns.

The divisions in public opinion regarding the question before the Supreme Court – whether states should be allowed to pass laws banning handguns – is similar to differences in views over gun control. Most Republicans (62%) and independents (57%) believe that states and localities should not be able to pass laws banning the sale and possession of handguns. A majority of Democrats (60%) say that state and local government should be allowed to pass such laws.

There also are sizeable gender and racial differences in these attitudes. A majority of men (57%) say localities should not be allowed to pass laws banning handguns while most women (51%) say such laws should be permitted. And while 57% of whites say state and local governments should not be allowed to pass laws prohibiting handguns, majorities of African Americans (64%) and Hispanics (61%) say they should be allowed to pass these laws.

Shifting Views on Gun Control

In May 1999, shortly after the shootings at Columbine High School, more than twice as many Americans said it was more important to control gun ownership (65%) than to protect the rights of Americans to own guns (30%). Support for gun control slipped to the mid-50% range in 2000 and remained at about that level through 2008.

Since April 2008, the number saying it is more important to control gun ownership has fallen by 12 points – from 58% to 46%. Over this period, there has been a nine-point increase (from 37% to 46%) in the proportion saying it is more important to protect gun rights.

Between 2008 and 2009, support for the right to own guns increased substantially among men – particularly white men – high school graduates, independents, and people living in the Midwest and South.

There has been little change in the views of most of these groups over the past year. However, a majority of independents (53%) now say it is more important to protect gun rights, while 41% say it is more important to control gun ownership. A year ago, opinion among independents was more evenly divided (48% protect gun rights vs. 45% control gun ownership). Two years ago, a majority (56%) of independents said it was more important to control gun ownership.

There has been a similar shift among high school graduates: by 53% to 41%, high school graduates now say it is more important to protect gun rights; opinion was divided a year ago and in 2008 a majority (56%) gave more priority to controlling gun ownership.

Support for gun control among white women also has fallen sharply since 2008. Two years ago, 61% of white women said it was more important to control gun ownership while 33% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns. In April 2009, white women – by 54% to 39% – said it was more important to control gun ownership. In the new survey, they are evenly divided (46% control gun ownership, 45% protect gun rights).

Long-Term Trend on Gun Control