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August 17, 2015

Continued Bipartisan Support for Expanded Background Checks on Gun Sales

Two years after the failure of Senate legislation to expand background checks on gun purchases, the public continues to overwhelmingly support making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Currently, 85% of Americans – including large majorities of Democrats (88%) and Republicans (79%) – favor expanded background checks, little changed from May 2013 (81%), according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center.

The survey, conducted July 14-20 among 2,002 adults, finds opinions about other gun policy proposals also are largely unchanged from two years ago, shortly after the December 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) favor laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns, and 70% back the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, while a smaller majority (57%) supports a ban on assault-style weapons.

Almost identical shares of Republicans (81%) and Democrats (79%) support laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns. But other proposals are more divisive: 85% of Democrats favor creation of a database for the federal government to track gun sales, compared with 55% of Republicans. And while 70% of Democrats back an assault-weapons ban, only about half of Republicans (48%) favor this proposal.

The survey finds that overall public views of the political influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have not changed much in recent years. But they have become more politically and ideologically polarized. Currently, 40% say the NRA has too much influence over gun control laws in this country, and 17% say it has too little influence, while 36% say it has the right amount of influence. This balance of opinion is virtually unchanged from May 2013, and is comparable to opinion about the NRA’s influence in 2000.

However, there are wider differences in how conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats see the NRA’s influence. Among Republicans and Republican leaners, just 13% of conservatives say the NRA has too much influence, down from 32% in 2000. By contrast, 68% of liberal Democrats and Democratic leaners say the organization has too much influence, compared with 57% who said this in 2000.

The survey also finds that the public continues to be more evenly divided in fundamental attitudes about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Currently, 50% say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 47% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Since December 2014, when support for gun rights reached a two-decade high, the share prioritizing gun rights has fallen five percentage points, while the percentage saying it is more important to control gun ownership has increased four points. The balance of opinion on gun policy priorities has been more closely divided in recent years than it was in the early 2000s or 1990s. From 1993-2008, majorities said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights.

There continues to be a substantial partisan gap in opinions about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or protect gun rights – much larger, in fact, than the gap over specific gun proposals. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%) say it is more important to control gun ownership; 71% of Republicans say it is more important to protect gun rights.

As previous Pew Research Center surveys have found, there is broad support for expanded background checks even from those who say it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership. About eight-in-ten (82%) of those who say it is more important to protect gun rights favor expanded background checks on private gun sales, as do 88% of those who prioritize controlling gun ownership.

Similarly, support for laws preventing the mentally ill from buying guns draws comparable levels of support from those who prioritize protecting gun rights (82%) and those who say it is more important to control gun ownership (77%).

However, those who say it is more important to control gun ownership are 31 percentage points more likely than those who prioritize gun rights to favor a government database to track gun sales (85% vs. 54%), and 30 percentage points more likely to support an assault-weapons ban (71% vs. 41%).

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