When it comes to addressing gun violence in the U.S., the general consensus seems to be that there’s no consensus. Gun owners and non-gun owners apparently can’t find common ground on policy solutions, which some Americans argue explains why there’s been so little action despite the mass shootings and other routine bloodshed of recent years.
But that explanation might be a bit too simplistic, according to a new study comparing support for gun violence prevention policies among gun owners and non-gun owners. The survey, conducted in January 2017 by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, found that both groups largely approve of the majority of the 24 proposals examined. For most of those policies, the approval gap between gun owners and non-gun owners was in the single digits.
“This signals that we have higher levels of support and higher levels of agreement between gun owners and non-gun owners than is generally understood,” said Colleen Barry, a Johns Hopkins professor and the lead author of the study.
Survey respondents were asked about a number of widely discussed gun measures, such as mandating universal background checks including for private sales of firearms, which are currently exempt under federal law. With support from 85 percent of gun owners and 89 percent of non-gun owners, this was the most popular proposal.
The study revealed broad support for a variety of lesser-known policies as well. The second-most popular measure was suspending the license of any gun dealer unable to account for 20 or more guns in their inventory, which 82 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of non-gun owners backed. Just behind that was a proposal to require concealed-carry licensees to undergo safety and proficiency testing ― 83 percent of gun owners and 85 percent of non-gun owners expressed support.
Large majorities of both groups also approved of so-called red flag laws. These measures give law enforcement additional authority to confiscate weapons from dangerous individuals, often following a petition filed by a family member or police. Four states have passed red flag laws since the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, meaning nine states now have them on the books. A handful of other states are currently considering similar legislation.
For 23 of the 24 proposals in the study, the majority of respondents came down on the side of greater gun restrictions or regulations. The least popular proposal involved prohibiting individuals convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct from possessing a gun for 10 years.
The most fruitful directions for policy are areas where gun owners and non-gun owners are a little more in agreement.
Colleen Barry, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research
On certain proposals, there were significant gaps between gun owners and non-gun owners.
The two groups were sharply divided on allowing concealed-carry permit holders to bring guns onto school grounds, though neither gave the idea majority support. Forty-three percent of gun owners backed the proposal, compared to 19 percent of non-gun owners.
There was also less agreement on requiring people to lock up firearms in the home when not in use ― 58 percent of gun owners supported the idea versus 79 percent of non-gun owners. The groups were similarly split, 63 percent to 81 percent, on requiring would-be gun owners to first obtain a license from a local law enforcement agency, as they must in Massachusetts.
Some of the most divisive measures were among those most often proposed in public debate. The survey showed large gaps and less overall support for banning the sale of military-style semiautomatic rifles ― 44 percent of gun owners versus 68 percent of non-gun owners ― and banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines ― 41 percent of gun owners versus 67 percent of non-gun owners.
These results could be used to guide decisions about which gun violence prevention measures to pursue, said study author Barry.
“In my mind, the most fruitful directions for policy are areas where gun owners and non-gun owners are a little more in agreement,” she said. “If that’s where policymakers are interested in moving, there are a lot of policies to choose from.”
Barry also noted that research on the effectiveness of a so-called assault weapons ban is somewhat limited, at least when it comes to reducing overall levels of gun violence. While lawmakers may understandably wish to prevent the sort of massacres that have been repeatedly carried out with AR-15s and similar rifles, she suggested they may not want to push that measure to the exclusion of more politically feasible proposals.
“There are potentially lost opportunities to focus more attention and political capital around policies where we do see much higher levels of support overall, but also across the gun owner/non-gun owner divide,” she said.
Barry has conducted similar studies twice before, with the first coming in January 2013, just weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. She said that she was initially concerned that support for gun reforms might be merely a reaction to a recent tragedy, but that subsequent surveys in 2015 and now 2017 have shown stable support for many proposals among gun owners and non-gun owners alike.
Although her latest survey was conducted before the Parkland shooting, Barry said she believes that event has likely only reinforced the public opinion trends seen in the 2017 survey, including the divisions on policies like banning assault weapons.
“Folks who are in favor of a stronger regulatory environment may feel even more strongly about that, and folks on the other side who are more concerned about gun rights being restricted in the aftermath of recent events may or may not take a more stringent view,” she said.
The question now is whether lawmakers at the state or federal level will focus on gun violence prevention policies that have wide support among both gun owners and non-gun owners.
There are a few reasons they might not, even in the face of a vigorous push for gun reform following the Parkland shooting. For one, Barry’s study was national in scope, meaning it didn’t gauge public opinion in specific states or local jurisdictions, where gun policy is often decided.
Then there’s the matter of lobbying by interest groups like the National Rifle Association, which hold plenty of political power ― perhaps even more than public opinion alone.
“We’d like to think that members of Congress speak with the voice of their constituencies, but it doesn’t always happen like we hope it does,” said Barry.