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Public Opinion on Gun Control

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Public Opinion on Gun Control

The twentieth century was a time of many political assassinations and violent shootings. A nation in shock mourned the deaths of President John Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. At the end of the twentieth century the nation endured rising rates of violent crime, with young people frequently involved as victims and perpetrators and often armed with guns. Between July 1992, and June 30, 1999, there were 358 school-associated violent deaths in the United States, including 255 deaths of school- aged children, or about 51 such violent deaths each year. (Schmitt rot, 2003)

Time after time, public opinion polls have shown that crime and violence are among the most important concerns troubling Americans, if not the most important. But do these concerns translate to changes in public support for federal gun control measures? I will focus on public attitudes toward gun control over both the short and longer terms.

Some Americans are convinced that more federal regulation of firearms is necessary to reduce the number of murders that are committed with guns and to ensure a safer, more civilized society. Others who support private ownership of guns insist that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by longstanding custom and by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that no cyclical increase in crime, no mass killing, nor any political murders should lead the nation to violate the Constitution and the individual rights it guarantees. What's more, they say, knives and other instruments are used to kill people, and there is no talk of regulating or banning them.

The National Rifle Association generally believes that if more ordinary, law-abiding citizens carried weapons, criminals would not have a safe place to commit mass murders and other violent crimes.

Both supporters and opponents of gun control agree that some means should be found to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Not surprisingly, the two sides approach the issue differently. The two different strategies for gun control involve "deterrence" (discouraging by instilling fear) and " interdiction" (legally forbidding the use of) Advocates of deterrence, most notably the Second Amendment Foundation and the NRA, recommend consistent enforcement of current laws and instituting tougher penalties to discourage individuals from using firearms in crimes. They maintain that interdiction will not have any effect on crime but will strip away the constitutional rights and privileges of law-abiding Americans by taking away their right to own guns.

On the other hands, advocates of interdiction, led by such organizations as Handgun Control, Inc, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and the Violence Policy Center, believe that controlling citizens' access to firearms will reduce crime. Therefore, they favor restrictions on public gun ownership.

A ten year overview of the public's attitudes about the issues government ought to be addressing is presented by the U.S. Department of Justice in its annual publication called Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002.In 1993 fewer that 0.5 percent of adults polled mentioned gun control spontaneously. In each year thereafter between 1 and 2 percent of the respondents mentioned gun control as an important issue. (Web 1)

Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of the Harris Poll, provides some insight into the meaning of the gun control numbers in an online essay dated May 17, 2000 .The essay accompanied the release of Harris Poll in which the question was asked: "What do you think are the two most important issues for the government to address?" Taylor noted:

"Education (19 percent) and health care (16 percent) continue to come top of the list of issues mentioned spontaneously when people were asked to say which two issues are most important to address. The most interesting trend is that gun control was mentioned by 9 percent ...Between 1996 and the first half of 1999, only one or two percents mentioned it as an issue. It now ranks sixth, behind education, health care, crime, Social Security and taxes."(Web2)

Pollsters from several organizations have periodically surveyed the public for its opinion on gun control measures. Two Harris Polls were conducted in 2001 that attempt to describe the public's attitude on gun control laws. One poll asked "In general, would you say you favor stricter gun control, or less strict gun control?" and the other asked specifically about handguns. Data from these polls show that Americans support legislation to regulate firearms, but there are significant differences of opinion by gender and race/ethnicity and lesser differences by age and other demographic characteristics. A majority of adults favor stricter handgun control laws. Women are significantly more likely than men to want stricter gun laws. More non-whites that whites want stricter gun control laws.(Smith 2001) According to the Harris Poll's Humphrey Taylor, the poll results are similar to replies given in 1999 and 2000 but as not as strong as the poll results from 1998, just after a number of school shooting occurred .Data by age are mixed. Respondents aged 18 to 24 years and respondents aged 30 and over favor stricter laws that the 25-to-29 age group. Democrats and Independents are more likely than Republicans to favor stronger gun laws. Lower-income, more highly educated individuals are somewhat more supportive of strict laws than are higher income individuals with some college or less. (Smith 2001)

In a 2000 survey sponsored by ABC/Washington Post the following question was posed;

" Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws in this country? Do you feel that way strongly, or only somewhat?" While nearly half of all respondents reported strongly favoring stricter gun control laws, women (63 percent) were far more in favor than were men (34 percent). Nearly a third of men reported being strongly opposed, compared with only 11 percent of women. The same ABC/Washington Post poll asked, "Do you think stricter gun control laws would reduce the amount of violent crime in this country, or not?" Again, men and women were sharply divided. Nearly two-thirds of women said yes (63 percent), while a slightly smaller percentage of men (61 percent) said no.

When respondents were asked whether they favored or opposed a ban on the nationwide sale of assault weapons, a majority (71 percent) said they were in favor. Again, men and women differed. ( Schmittroth, 2003)

In general however if we look at the long-term trend attitudes toward the regulation of firearms were remarkably stable over the last 40 years of the twentieth century, despite assassinations,

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