Gun Policy Remains Divisive, But Several Proposals Still Draw Bipartisan Support
More prioritize controlling gun ownership than protecting gun rights
The partisan divide that for years has defined public opinion about the nation’s gun policies remains firmly in place. Yet there continue to be several specific policy proposals that draw broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.
Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and Democrats and Democratic leaners (89% each) say mentally ill people should be barred from buying guns. Nearly as many in both parties (86% of Democrats, 83% of Republicans) favor barring gun purchases by people on federal watch lists. And sizable majorities also favor making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks (91% of Democrats, 79% of Republicans).
Yet there is a 30-percentage-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in support for an assault weapons ban (81% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans) and even wider gaps on two other proposals: arming teachers and school officials in elementary and high schools and allowing people to carry concealed weapons in more places.
Large majorities of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor both of these proposals (69% arming school officials, 68% expanded concealed carry), compared with only about a quarter of Democrats and Democratic leaners (22% arming school officials, 26% expanded concealed carry).
Opinions on these and other gun policy proposals have changed little in the year since Pew Research Center conducted a major study of guns in the U.S. (See “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns.”) Still, the new survey, conducted Sept. 24-Oct. 7, finds modest changes in some public attitudes on gun policy:
A majority of Americans say gun laws should be stricter. The share of Americans who say gun laws in this country should be stricter has increased somewhat since last year. Currently, 57% say gun laws should be more strict than they are currently, compared with 31% who say they are about right, while just 11% say they should be less strict. Last year, 52% supported stricter gun laws.
Stark partisan divisions on impact of more gun limits on frequency of mass shootings. Nearly half of Americans (47%) say there would be fewer mass shootings if it was harder for people to legally obtain guns in the U.S. Slightly more say making gun ownership more difficult either would make no difference (46%) or this would lead to more mass shootings (6%). Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) say making it harder for people to obtain guns would result in fewer mass shootings; an identical share of Republicans say it would not make a difference.
Modest shift in views of gun rights vs. gun control.
Opinions about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or protect gun rights have been closely divided for several years. Today, somewhat more say it is more important to control gun ownership (52%) than to protect the right of Americans to own guns (44%), according to a separate national survey, conducted Sept. 18-24 among 1,754 adults.
These attitudes, like many related to gun policy, have long been deeply divided along partisan lines. But the partisan gap has widened: In 2010, Barack Obama’s second year in office, Republicans were about twice as likely as Democrats to prioritize gun rights rather than gun control (65% vs. 33%). Today, Republicans are four times more likely than Democrats to say gun rights are more important (76% vs. 19%).
There also is a wide gender divide in these views. By close to two-to-one (62% to 33%), women say it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Men, by a smaller margin (55% to 41%), say it is more important to protect gun ownership.
In views of gun policies, partisanship and gun ownership are factors
Like partisanship, gun ownership also impacts views of specific policy proposals. Overall, gun owners are more likely than non-gun owners to support measures that expand access to guns, and less likely to support restrictions on gun use and ownership.
About four-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (41%) say they personally own a gun, compared with 17% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.
These differences in views by gun ownership are evident among members of both parties, though they are more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats.
The roughly 50-50 split in views of Republicans overall on banning high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons reflects sharp differences between Republicans who own guns and those who do not. Among Republicans, non-gun-owners are about 30 percentage points more likely than gun owners to favor each of these proposals.
Yet Democrats also are divided on the basis of gun ownership. This is particularly evident in opinions about proposals to allow people to carry concealed weapons in more places and arm teachers and other school officials. Half of Democratic gun owners favor expanded concealed carry, compared with just 21% of Democrats who do not own guns. And Democratic gun-owners are about twice as likely as Democrats who do not own guns to favor arming teachers and other school officials in K-12 schools (37% vs. 19%).
Majority of public supports stricter gun laws
Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) say gun laws should be more strict than they are today, 31% say they are about right, and 11% say they should be less strict. Last year, 52% favored stricter laws; 30% said they were about right and 18% said should be less strict.
Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say gun laws in the U.S. should be stricter than they are today (80% vs. 28%). About half of Republicans say current laws are about right (52%), while 20% say they should be less strict.
Like attitudes on specific gun proposals, gun ownership also impacts views of the strictness of gun laws. Within each party, non-gun owners were more likely than gun owners to say laws should be more strict.
Democrats – regardless of whether they personally own a gun – overwhelmingly say stricter laws are needed, though fewer Democratic gun owners than non-gun-owners favor making laws stricter (64% vs. 84%).
And while Republicans generally oppose stricter gun laws, support for tougher laws is more widespread among Republican non-gun owners (40%) than gun owners (13%).
Impact of changes in access to guns on crime, mass shootings
The public is mixed when it comes to the potential impact that more Americans owning guns would have on crime in the U.S. Comparable shares say that if more Americans owned guns, there would be more crime (37%) or there would be no impact on the amount of crime (33%). About one-in-three say there would be less crime.
Republicans and Democrats are deeply split on the possible impact of more Americans owning guns. Half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say there would be less crime (50%), while a majority of Democrats say there would be more crime (56%).
Mirroring the gap among partisans, gun-owners and non-gun owners are also deeply divided. A small majority of gun owners say more gun ownership would lead to less crime while nearly half of non-gun owners say there would be more crime.
The public also is divided over the impact of making it harder to legally own guns on mass shootings in the U.S. Nearly half of adults (47%) say that if it was harder for people to legally obtain guns in the United States, there would be fewer mass shootings in this country. An equal share (46%) say it would make no difference in the number of these incidents, and 6% say it would result in more mass shootings.
Overall, public views are little changed since the question was last asked in 2017. However, the share who say there would be more mass shootings if it were harder to own guns is smaller – from 13% in a year ago to 6% today.
Gun policy activism: Modest partisan gaps, except on attending protests
Relatively few Americans say they have ever expressed their feelings about the issue of guns by either posting on social media (26%), contributing money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy (14%), contacting a public official to express an opinion on guns (14%) or attending a rally or protest about the issue of guns (6%).
Even smaller shares say they have done any of these activities in the past year.
On two behaviors surveyed in 2017 and today – contributing money to an organization or contacting a public official – the share who report having done either is little changed. In 2017, 6% of adults said they had contacted a public official in the previous year to express an opinion on gun policy. Today, 7% of adults say they have contacted an official in the past 12 months.
Similarly, in 2017, 7% of adults said they had contributed money to an organization in the past year. Today, an equal share (7%) say the same.
There are no significant differences in expressions of views on gun policy by age or gender, but larger differences by gun ownership and partisanship.
Gun owners were more likely than non-gun owners to say they had publicly expressed feelings about the issue of guns on social media (22% vs. 16%) or contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy (13% vs. 5%) in the past 12 months.
Differences between gun owners and non-gun owners are particularly pronounced among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. A quarter of Republican gun-owners said they had posted about guns on social media in the last year (25%), contributed money to an organization (16%) or contacted a public official (9%). Among non-gun owning Republicans, fewer reported engaging in these activities.
In contrast, there are few differences between gun owning and non-gun owning Democrats.
And while Republicans and Democrats overall report similar levels of engagement in expressive activities on guns, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they had attended a rally or protest about the issue of guns in the past 12 months (5% vs 1%, respectively).