The polling indicates some areas where President Barack Obama's promised push for new measures to combat gun-related violence could prevail. At the same time, the numbers also show deeply entrenched and stark partisan divides on the issue that almost certainly will complicate efforts to gain support from Republicans for new gun measures.
Controlling the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips gets consistent majority support in surveys by the Washington Post/ABC News and that were conducted after the Newton, Conn., massacre last week. The ability to fire large numbers of bullets without reloading has factored into several mass shootings.
A ban on bullets that can penetrate bulletproof vests also gets strong public support in recent surveys. Previous polls have shown strong support for requiring background checks of all people trying to buy guns and other steps to close loopholes in the current system.
By contrast, large majorities oppose more far-reaching steps, such as a ban on private ownership of handguns. The public remains closely divided on the issue of banning semiautomatic guns, with poll results varying in part on the wording of the question.
The surveys suggest that the outcome of the coming debate could depend heavily on whether public attention focuses on the specific proposals or on the general issue of "gun control."
Overall, public opinion on regulating guns has shown "only modest change" since last week's killings, according to pollsters at the Pew Research Center based on a new survey of 1,219 Americans conducted Monday through Wednesday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Asked whether it is "more important to control gun ownership" or "more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns," Americans divided closely, with 49 percent putting a priority on gun control and 42 percent on protecting gun rights. That's a shift from a 47 percent to 46 percent division just after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July. Neither the Aurora shooting nor the one in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 produced a significant increase in support for controls as a general proposition.
The difficulty of moving public opinion on the issue reflects the reality that most Americans have strongly held views on the subject. Currently, that intensity leans toward the gun-control side, but only slightly, with 42 percent saying they feel strongly that a priority should be put on controlling gun ownership, while 37 percent feel strongly on the side of protecting gun rights.
In the late 1990s, about two-thirds of Americans said that controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting gun rights, but the percentage backing gun control dropped during the George W. Bush presidency, then fell sharply again when Obama was first elected.
That historical pattern reflects the stark partisan divide on the issue. Among Democrats, 72 percent in the new Pew survey said they put their priority on controlling gun ownership, while only 20 percent sided with protecting gun rights. Among Republicans, the division was the reverse, 27 percent to 69 percent. About one-third of Americans say they have a gun at home. Among Republicans, almost half say so, while among Democrats, only one-quarter do.
That partisan divide is reinforced by strong regional and racial ones. In the Northeast, residents put the priority on gun control by more than 2 to 1. In the rest of the country, the public is equally divided between the gun control and gun rights sides. Urban residents put their priority on gun control by 56 percent to 35 percent, while among rural residents the divide is almost the opposite, 39 percent to 52 percent; suburbanites are closely split. Blacks by 68 percent to 24 percent put a priority on gun control while among whites, the divide goes the other way, 42 percent to 51 percent, with support for gun ownership particularly strong among white men.
Although Obama on Wednesday suggested that parents might back gun control measures to protect children, the Pew survey showed that support for gun control is higher among non-parents, reflecting the fact that Americans younger than 30 support gun control considerably more than those ages 30 to 65. Americans older than 65 were the group that has shown the most shift in opinion this year, moving toward greater support for gun controls.
Overall, the Pew survey shows that a plurality of Americans, 48 percent to 37 percent, say that gun ownership does more to protect people from crime than it does to put people's safety at risk.
By contrast, when asked whether allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country safer or more dangerous, Americans by more than 2-to-1 said more dangerous. Even those who put a priority on protecting gun rights divided evenly on the question about assault weapons, an indicator that new restrictions on at least some of those weapons could gain majority support.
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