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Americans Support Range of Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence

Editor’s note | This post was updated at 5:52 p.m. to correct the language around New York’s gun law as it pertains to magazines.

A little more than a month after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 26 people dead, New York lawmakers signed into law a suite of tough new policies they said were designed to prevent future gun violence.

In addition to imposing a background check system on all private gun sales and reducing permissible magazines down to seven rounds from 10, the law implements the state’s first handgun database for local officials to check gun owners for mental health issues and criminal offenses.

“This is a gun control bill that actually exercises common sense,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a speech before signing the bill on Jan. 28. The law received broad support from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Cuomo isn’t alone in his policy efforts to reduce gun violence as the country collectively heals following the loss of 20 first graders and six of their teachers, along with shooter Adam Lanza’s mother. President Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley are some of the lawmakers readying for a fight with the gun lobby over their push to implement similar policies at federal and state levels.

Recent public opinion data suggests they might have more success passing less controversial policies that researchers say also may have an appreciable effect on reducing gun violence.

The national survey of 2,703 people includes respondents who identified politically as Republicans, Democrats and independents. The survey also broke down respondents in terms of gun owners, non-gun owners, gun owners living in a house with a gun and owners who identified as members of the National Rifle Association. The research center was established in 1995 with a goal of reducing gun violence.

“There were a couple of real surprises that came out of this work,” Colleen Barry, lead researcher and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told the NewsHour.

“One surprise was that so many of these policies were supported by a majority of gun owners, and a second was that so many policies enjoyed support across political party affiliations,” Barry said.

PBS NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni spoke with Johns Hopkins professor Colleen Barry via Google Hangout about the role public opinion may play in this year’s debate over gun control policy:

Several policies received more than 80 percent support across the groups surveyed. These proposals include expanding the background check system to all gun sales, adding individuals undergoing psychiatric treatment to the background check system, keeping people on the terror watch-list from legally obtaining a firearm, taking away a dealer’s license for inadequate record-keeping and prohibiting a person convicted of a serious crime as a juvenile from having a gun for 10 years.

“The majority of Americans supported most of the 31 different gun policies that we asked about and only four of those policies were supported by less than a majority,” said Barry.

The survey also showed consensus among non-gun owners and NRA members for several proposals. It found 89 percent of Americans support expanding the background check system. The policy received 84 percent support from gun owners and 74 percent support from NRA members.

Policies that would prohibit certain individuals from having a gun also received broad support. For example, a policy that would prevent a person who has violated a domestic violence restraining order from having a firearm was favored by 81 percent of respondents. It received 76 percent support among gun owners and 62 percent support among NRA members.

Survey respondents also were open to considering policies that place more scrutiny on gun dealers, including a policy proposal that would revoke the dealer’s license if an audit revealed records-keeping violations. They also were open to a policy that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison on someone convicted of selling a weapon to someone who is prohibited from having a firearm.

“I think the bottom line message for policymakers is they have a large range of options from which to choose in terms of enacting legislation to curb gun violence,” Barry said. “We tend to focus in the political debate around a couple of policies and some of those are controversial and some are not that controversial.”

One of the most highly publicized and controversial policy proposals is a ban on assault weapons, consumer grade, military-style weapons on which users can attach devices to increase the weapon’s firepower. Lawmakers also are proposing limiting the number of bullets an ammunition magazine can fire before reloading.

“The high capacity magazines that give you the capacity to kill a large number of human beings is nonsensical to a civil society,” Cuomo said before signing the New York legislation.

Even as the Johns Hopkins survey found a majority of support among Americans for a ban on these weapons — 69 percent — the proposal didn’t make the list of the top five policies that people across all groups viewed favorably.

Yet armed with these survey results, Feinstein is working to gain support for a bill she introduced in January that would reinstate a ban on assault weapons and limit to a 10-rounds capacity. The prior ban in place for a decade between 1994 and 2004 was part of a broader initiative to reduce crime. A congressional hearing on Feinstein’s proposal is set for Wednesday.

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