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Most gun owners favor modest restrictions but deeply distrust government, poll finds

Shooting range owner John Deloca fires his pistol at his range in Queens, N.Y.
Ed Jones
/
AFP via Getty Images
Shooting range owner John Deloca fires his pistol at his range in Queens, N.Y.

The overwhelming majority of gun owners are in favor of universal background checks, of raising the minimum age to buy guns to 21 and so-called "red flag" laws to remove guns from potentially dangerous people, a new NPR/Ipsos survey finds.

But most of these gun owners also don't want to see an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon ban, doubt new gun-control measures would do anything to stop mass shootings and Republican gun owners in particular think passing new gun control laws is a slippery slope toward taking all guns away.

"This NPR/Ipsos survey of American gun owners shows that the majority of gun owners are supportive of moderate gun control measures like background checks or increased age requirements, but harbor deep distrust of government suggesting the barriers that exist to more actions on guns," said Chris Jackson, senior vice president with Ipsos.

The survey of 1,022 adults with at least one gun was conducted from June 15 to 21, before the mass shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, but after those in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.3 percentage points. There were 445 Republicans interviewed, 389 independents and 183 Democrats. (Five people declined to answer.)

Support for some gun-control measures

More than 8 in 10 gun owners said they are in favor of universal background checks for all gun sales, including private sales and at gun shows. That's similar to the almost 9 in 10 of all Americans who say so in other surveys.

Roughly two-thirds or more are in favor of raising the minimum age to buy an assault-style weapon to 21 (72%), raising the age to buy any kind of gun to 21 (67%) and red flag laws (65%).

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"As a gun owner myself, both pistols and hunting rifles, I feel that it's important that background checks, red flag laws and raising the age should be something that we as a country should be doing," said poll respondent Christopher Montes of Connecticut.

Montes, a self-declared independent, said there are simply too many guns in the wrong hands.

Recently passed legislation expanded background checks on those between the ages of 18 and 21 looking to purchase a gun, offered incentives for states to pass red flag laws and eliminated the so-called "boyfriend loophole," which expanded on a law that prevented spouses convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun.

"While this bill doesn't do everything I want, it does include actions I've long called for that are going to save lives," President Biden said before signing the legislation.

Among other things, Biden wanted to see a return to a ban on AR-15-style semi-automatic weapons, the kind seen in recent mass shootings that can fire many rounds quickly.

But there is less support for an outright assault-style weapons ban among gun owners as opposed to other gun-control measures, with 55% opposed to such a ban. There was a sharp split by party, with 72% of Republican gun owners and a slim majority of independents (53%) opposed, and 84% of Democratic gun owners in favor.

Other surveys, including ones conducted for NPR, have found majority support for this kind of measure when non-gun owners are factored in. There was a ban on such weapons for 10 years beginning in the mid-1990s. When it expired, mass shootings increased threefold.

"I do support that [an assault-style weapons ban] because I think that we should be protecting our kids," said poll participant Lizzie, a 45 year old self-described conservative who lives in West Texas. She didn't want her last name used.

She said she's fed up with the horrific stream of mass shootings — at elementary schools, grocery stores, and Fourth of July parades.

"We don't need to be losing kids like that," she added. "They should grow up and be who they want to, and fulfill their dreams. You know, they're just too innocent to die so young."

Fred, a 73 year old Republican gun owner in Bakersfield, Calif., agreed.

"Get rid of the AR-15s, get rid of all of that kind of stuff, and do better background checks," he said. "It's made for war. It is not made to hunt with, it is made to kill, okay? Regular people have no business owning them. That's part of the problem we have."

But others disagree.

"I'm not for banning any of them," said Montes, the independent gun owner from Connecticut, who supports some gun-control measures. "If they're going to ban again just ARs, that doesn't make sense. There are other high-powered, fairly high capacity guns that don't look like ARs. And so are you going to not ban those?"

Amber, a Republican police officer from Pennsylvania, sees any AR-style ban as unnecessary and unconstitutional.

"I don't believe in banning them because I believe that everyone should have the right to bear arms, who legally owns arms in the United States. I don't think we should take the right from American citizens who own guns legally, who should have guns."

Weapons, like machine guns and rocket launchers and other "destructive devices," are technically legal at a federal level, but highly regulated and require strict background checks.

About one in five gun owners say they own AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles, including a quarter of Republicans. When asked if "people like me" need to own such weapons, 45% of gun owners said no, while 35% said yes. But there was a big partisan split. Three-quarters of Democrats said no, but only about half of independents and a third of Republicans said no.

The numbers highlight the sharp partisan lines that emerge when it comes to more high-powered types of guns – and the difficulty in getting broad support to restrict them.

By far, pistols are what most respondents own (73%), followed by rifles (57%) and shotguns (56%). Most gun owners (70%) say they own more than one gun with a quarter saying they own six or more.

People said they own guns mostly for their own protection (79%) or to protect their families (78%) and because they enjoy shooting for sport (54%).

Less than half (46%) said it's because they're exercising their constitutional right to do so, though there was a partisan split on that with six in 10 Republicans saying that's why they do versus just 17% of Democrats. Democrats were also less likely to say they own a gun for sport (34%).

Distrust of government

Despite the potential support for some gun-control measures among gun owners, when you dig deeper there is a clear distrust of government, especially among Republicans, who make up the plurality of gun owners in the survey.

Just a quarter of gun owners overall said they have trust in the federal government to look out for their best interests. (An even lower 16% said so of the news media.)

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A slim majority believe passing new gun control laws is a slippery slope toward taking away all guns. Three-quarters of Republicans thought so as did about half of independents.

Sixty percent of Republican gun owners said the government wants to take away all guns, and 55% of them said passing new gun control laws goes against their Second Amendment rights.

Notably, the National Rifle Association doesn't have as much sway with gun owners as the group's power in Washington might suggest. Gun owners are largely split on the gun lobbying group, with 53% saying they have not very much or no trust at all in the NRA.

Again, there's a big partisan divide with three-quarters of Republicans saying they trust the NRA versus just a third of independents and 12% of Democrats.

The NRA has seen its share of troubles over the past couple of years, from internal strife to a lawsuit alleging self-dealing to filing for bankruptcy. Still, the group seems to control the narrative in response to mass shootings, from former President Trump on down to congressional Republicans.

Overall, 61% think passing new gun laws won't do anything to stop mass shootings, including almost 8 in 10 Republicans and 56% of independents.

Not surprisingly, most gun owners say it's more important to protect gun rights (56%) than control gun violence (43%), though there is a major partisan split – eight in 10 Republicans say it's more important to protect gun rights, while almost nine in 10 Democrats who own guns say the priority should be controlling gun violence.

Their top concern is like other Americans – inflation. Sixty percent said so. Political extremism and polarization were second (33%), followed by government budget and debt (27%), crime or gun violence, immigration and climate change (26% each).

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.