How Do State and Local Government Officials View Gun Control?

Most state and local public officials favor universal background checks, however, support varies when it comes to other proposals to prevent gun violence.
by | May 28, 2013

Senior-level state and local government officials strongly favor universal background checks as a solution to gun violence, according to a Governing Index survey. But support for other oft-discussed measures tracked closely, based on gun ownership among public officials.

Although previous polls have documented attitudes about gun policy proposals among the general public, the Governing Index offers some insights into how government practitioners at the state and local level view those same measures. The Governing Index surveyed a systematic random sample of 225 senior state, county and city officials -- representing a mix of elected, appointed and civil service positions -- who are members of the Governing Exchange research community. The survey was conducted between April 11 and May 10, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6.6 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. Survey participants are not representative of all government employees -- only senior-level officials working in state and local governments.

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The survey asked whether public officials grew up with a firearm at home, whether they own a firearm today, and whether they favored or opposed the following policies, all of which have been proposed somewhere as responses to mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo. last year:

  • Require a background check system for all gun sales to make sure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun
  • Ban the sale of military-style, semiautomatic assault weapons that are capable of shooting more than 10 rounds of ammunition without reloading
  • Ban the sale of large-capacity ammunition clips or magazines that allow some guns to shoot more than 10 bullets before reloading
  • Increase funding for public schools to hire additional school resource officers
  • Conduct regular gun-buyback events at least once a year
  • Require that every public school train and arm at least one staff member with a gun

The proposal that garnered overwhelming consensus across all respondents, regardless of gun ownership, was universal background checks. About 85 percent said they supported background checks on all gun sales, so that prohibited people could not purchase firearms. This fits with previous polling of the general public. For instance, a January survey conducted by public health researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 88 percent of the general public supported universal background checks.

Gun ownership was higher among Governing Index respondents than the general population. About 47 percent of respondents said they owned firearms today. About three-quarters of those gun-owning public officials grew up with a firearm in their family home. By contrast, the Johns Hopkins survey and a February survey by Kaiser Family Foundation both found that about one-third of Americans live in a gun-owning household. The difference could reflect the fact that senior-level state and local public officials are more likely to have guns or that the individuals in the Governing Exchange community disproportionately represent gun-owning areas, said Colleen Barry, a researcher who helped designed the Johns Hopkins survey.

In general, policies that treated guns as a deterrent or a defense against violence were more popular with gun-owning public officials; policies that sought to prohibit guns or features of guns were more popular with officials who do not own guns. For example, a majority of gun-owning public officials opposed a ban on assault weapons (61 percent) and a ban on high-capacity magazines (60 percent). Public officials who do not own guns supported an assault weapons ban (83 percent) and a high-capacity magazine ban (82 percent).

Even where majorities of both sub groups agreed, a gap still existed. About 41 percent of gun-owning respondents supported a requirement that every school train and arm at least one staff member with a firearm, compared with 15 percent of non-gun owners. Slightly more than half of gun owners were supportive of voluntary gun buybacks (compared with 76 percent of non-gun owners). About 71 percent of gun-owning public officials supported increased funding to hire additional school resource officers (compared with 53 percent of non-gun owners).

“I don’t think whether somebody owns guns is the deciding factor,” said Nancy Chaney, mayor of Moscow, Idaho, a college town of about 24,000 in the northern end of the state. Chaney grew up in a household with a gun and her father taught marksmanship classes in the Marine Corps during World War II. As a young girl, she owned both a shotgun and a single-shot rifle, though she doesn’t own a firearm today. “Early on we were taught the respect for guns. You don’t mess around with them. They’re not toys.”

Despite this background, Chaney has become an advocate of many reforms included in President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda. “I’m not ferociously opposed to owning guns. I just think there are reasonable sideboards,” she said. In January her city council sent a letter to Congress and the Idaho House Judiciary Committee with recommendations from the Moscow Police Department on ways the state legislature could reduce gun violence, which included universal background checks, a prohibition on armour-piercing bullets and limiting access to high-capacity magazines. Six years ago, Moscow city leadership also asked the Idaho attorney general if state law permitted the city to ban firearms in public forums, such as a city council chamber (the attorney general said no). “The only authority [the city has] is to disallow discharge firearms within city limits, which I find ludicrous,” Chaney said.

Although gun-owning public officials were consistently cool to any reform that targeted guns as part of the problem, Chaney may be correct: The fact that public officials own guns may not explain their attitudes about gun control. Instead, it may correlate with other factors that play a role in determining attitudes about gun control. Gender, age and political orientation also help explain a person’s attitudes about gun policies, says Garen Wintemute, a public health researcher who studies gun violence at the University of California, Davis.

Another important factor is location. The Kaiser survey in February demonstrated that gun ownership is twice as prevalent in rural areas (53 percent) as in urban ones (25 percent) and many fewer people in rural areas reported knowing someone who was a victim of a gun crime. Thus, it’s possible that the differences in attitudes about gun policies stem largely from where someone lives: Those in cities might be more likely to associate guns with violent crime whereas those who live in rural areas would think of guns in terms of hunting and recreational target practice.

States and localities have become the laboratories of gun policy experimentation as the prospect of new national gun control measures has dimmed, following failed votes in April on several gun control proposals in the U.S. Senate. A new South Dakota law empowers school districts to arm teachers in the classroom. A recent Arizona law forces police departments to sell guns acquired at buyback events to licensed dealers. Several states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast have expanded background checks and banned high-capacity ammunition clips. And the Chicago mayor announced plans to disinvest the city’s pension fund from companies that make military-style semi-automatic assault weapons.

Governing Index Survey Results

The following tabulations include results across all 225 respondents (total) as well as the sub categories of gun ownership (105 said yes, 120 said no).

Did you grow up with a firearm in your family’s home?

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner         Total

Yes           75%                    32%                            52%

No            25%                    68%                            48%

Do you own a firearm today?

                  Total

Yes           47%

No            53%

For the following statements, which option best describes your feelings about the proposals to reduce gun violence?

Require a background check system for all gun sales to make sure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         73%                    95%                             85%

Oppose     27%                       5%                           15%

Ban the sale of military-style, semiautomatic assault weapons that are capable of shooting more than 10 rounds of ammunition without reloading:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         39%                    82%                            62%

Oppose     61%                     18%                            38%

Ban the sale of large-capacity ammunition clips or magazines that allow some guns to shoot more than 10 bullets before reloading:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         40%                    83%                            63%

Oppose      60%                    17%                            37%

Require that every public school train and arm at least one staff member with a gun:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         41%                    15%                            27%

Oppose     59%                    85%                            73%

Conduct regular gun-buyback events at least once a year:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         54%                    76%                            66%

Oppose     46%                    24%                            34%

Increase funding for public schools to hire additional school resource officers:

                  Gun owner        Non-gun owner           Total

Favor         71%                    53%                            62%

Oppose     29%                    47%                            38%

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