A broad cross section of the American public supports criminal background checks for all gun sales, according to findings from a new survey to be published in the Jan. 28 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted the survey Jan. 2-14, 2013 “to understand public attitudes about a range of violence prevention proposals.” The authors wrote that it had been almost 15 years since a poll gauged public sentiment on a wide range of potential policies for reducing gun violence.
"I was surprised, frankly, how high levels of support were," said Colleen Barry, a co-author of the report who teaches a course on public opinion polling and health policy at Johns Hopkins. "I think the takeaway for policymakers is that they have quite a diverse set of policies from which to choose."
The online survey queried a sample of 2,703 respondents with an overall margin of error under 2 percent and a 69 percent completion rate. About 35 percent of the respondents were gun owners and a subset of those (6 percent of all respondents) were NRA members. The researchers oversampled gun owners and non-gun owners who live in households with a gun because they wanted to make precise estimates about the differences between those groups and non-gun owners in general. For estimates on respondents' support of different policies, however, they weighted the responses to fit a national sample.
A majority of respondents supported all but four of 31 suggested gun-control policies. Proposals with the strongest popularity included universal background checks and a variety of prohibitions on potentially dangerous people. Bans on military-style semiautomatic firearms and high-capacity magazines were far less popular among gun owners and NRA members than among non-gun owners.
When asked about “requiring a background check system for all gun sales to make sure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun,” most gun owners (84.3 percent) and most NRA members (73.7 percent) said they supported it. The requirement was even more popular among non-gun owners -- 89.9 percent.
Many states do not report mental health records to a background-check system, yet 85.4 percent of overall respondents said they favored requiring such reporting if “a person is prohibited from buying a gun either because of involuntary commitment to a hospital for psychiatric treatment or because of being declared mentally incompetent by a court of law.”
In general, suggested bans garnered more support among non-gun owners than gun owners. For example, “banning the sale of military-style, semiautomatic assault weapons that are capable of shooting more than 10 rounds of ammunition without reloading” won approval from 77.4 percent of non-gun owners but only 45.7 percent of gun owners.
Several hypothetical bans on ammunition clips capable of carrying 10 or more rounds received similar responses, illustrating a clear divide among non-gun owners and gun owners on restricting access to high-powered weapons or their ammunition.
Respondents -- regardless of gun ownership -- were largely aligned on types of people that should be prohibited from having a gun: those who have been convicted of violating a domestic violence restraining order (80.8 percent), those who have been convicted of a serious crime as a juvenile (83.1 percent) and those who have been convicted of two or more crimes involving alcohol or drugs within a three-year period (74.8 percent).
Barry pointed out that there appeared to be agreement about punishing firearm dealers who intentionally sell to a prohibited person, such as a convicted felon. When asked about a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for knowingly selling a gun to someone who cannot legally have a gun, 70.7 percent of gun owners and 77.7 percent of non-gun owners said they favored the requirement.