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Protesters hold signs as they call for a reform of gun laws three days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High...

Poll: Gun control should be Congress’ top priority, half of Americans say

Americans remain divided on the issue of gun control, with 52 percent saying they think stricter gun laws should be Congress’ top legislative priority, according to the latest survey from PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll.

A quarter of Americans — 27 percent — said gun legislation should not be a priority, the poll found. Another 19 percent said it is a priority but shouldn’t be the first thing Congress tackles.

The debate over guns is back in the spotlight, as schools across the country plan walkouts this week to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School mass shooting. The walkouts come as students and activists continue calling for reform after the February mass shooting a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But the poll shows that Americans are still divided on the issue, largely along political lines, in an election year in which Congress is unlikely to tackle major legislative reform.

Seventy-five percent of Democrats and half of independents said gun legislation was a priority, while just 26 percent of Republicans agree.

This issue is also on the minds of most U.S. teens and their parents. According to a new national survey from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 say they are concerned about whether a school shooting will happen on their campus. And 63 percent of parents of teens say they worry about their children’s safety at school.

Gun violence.

When asked whether it was more important to protect gun rights or control gun violence, 57 percent of Americans in the NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll chose the latter.

When asked whether it was more important to protect gun rights or control gun violence, 57 percent of Americans in the NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll chose the latter. This response is part of a continuing incremental trend that first emerged months after 26 people died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In April 2013, months after that shooting, 53 percent of Americans said they want to prevent further gun violence — four percentage points higher than a month earlier.

But responses from gun owners were markedly different. According to the poll, 56 percent of U.S. adults who own guns believe it’s more essential for the country to preserve gun rights.

When asked about the protests led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Florida school where a gunman killed 17 people in February, just 33 percent of Americans said the student demonstrations left a major impact on the way the nation sees guns. Forty-six percent said the demonstrations had a minor impact, and 18 percent said they had no impact at all.

READ MORE: What we don’t know about gun violence

That’s down slightly from February when, days after the shooting took place, 23 percent of Americans thought student demonstrations would have no effect on gun violence nationwide, according to Marist.

In February, 59 percent of voters said a congressional candidate’s position on guns weighed heavily in their minds going into this November’s elections. But now, two months later, 46 percent of registered voters said that was still the case.

When asked to think about specific gun policies designed to stem mass shootings:

  • 56 percent said they would definitely vote for candidates who want to ban semi-automatic assault rifles, including AR-15 and AK-47 weapons
  • 58 percent said they would vote against candidates who wanted to arm school teachers with guns
  • 52 percent said they would vote against candidates who receive contributions from the NRA
  • 86 percent of U.S. voters — and 83 percent of gun owners — said they would cast a ballot for politicians who promote background checks for private sales or those made during gun shows

Public health and safety experts say it’s impossible to know how effective these policies could be, in large part because the United States stopped collecting gun violence data in 1996. That’s when Congress passed the Dickey Amendment to prohibit research that could be used to lobby for gun control laws. While the legislation did not forbid firearms research, the amendment had a chilling effect on what research public health experts pursued.

“If you don’t know what works, you can claim anything works,” said Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which explored how firearms affected public health during his two decades of work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist conducted a survey April 10-13 that polled 1,011 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, 827 registered U.S. voters with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points and 345 U.S. gun owners with a margin of error of 6.1 percentage points.