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Pew: Partisan Divide On Gun Ownership, Bipartisan Support On Background Checks


The bills that go before Congress tomorrow will face tough opposition from some lawmakers. But among the American people, what are the attitudes towards stricter gun control? I spoke with the head of the Pew Research Center this past week, Michael Dimock. And he told me that back in the 1990s when Pew started polling on this issue, there was much broader support for gun control than there is today.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Even banning handguns was something that somewhere close to half of Americans favored in the 1990s. Today, the notion that a handgun ban would be put in place is almost unthinkable politically. So there's been a really broad shift in opinion in the American electorate and the public more broadly toward supporting gun rights over the last 20 years.

MARTIN: Two other things that are in the ether right now, especially after the Orlando shooting a week ago - talk of a ban on assault weapons, which comes up a lot every time there's a massacre like the one we saw. But more specifically to the Orlando shooting, prohibiting people who are on some kind of federal terrorist watchlist or a No Fly List from buying a weapon. Can you unpack both of those ideas and where Americans' perceptions are on either of those?

DIMOCK: Sure. An assault weapons ban really splits the country. In our latest survey on that topic, 56 percent said they would favor an assault weapons ban as part of public policy in this country. But it's deeply polarized along political lines. Seventy percent of Democrats favor the idea, but only a minority of Republicans would favor that idea. I haven't seen any polling specifically on whether people would favor preventing anyone on a terrorist watchlist from having access to guns. I suspect it would be a widely supported concept.

MARTIN: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to hold votes on four gun-control bills Monday, two from Democrats, two from Republicans. As someone who has watched this kind of legislation come and go over the years, may I just ask how likely you think it is that any of these would move forward?

DIMOCK: Well, (laughter) it is hard to say. I mean, we've seen many pieces of legislation never make it this far, and then we've seen others make it to floor votes and not win, like Manchin-Toomey in 2013. And I think the thing to keep in mind when you're trying to understand how members are reacting is they're responding to the pressures from their electorates. And the reality that we see in measure after measure in polling is that while the balance of opinion may run toward gun control efforts, the intensity of opinion often tends to run the other way.

And that people who feel that gun rights should be the priority in this country are much more likely to reach out to their members of Congress and express their views. They're more likely to donate money. They're more likely to engage in politics in a variety of ways. And probably most importantly, they're more likely to call themselves single-issue voters.

If you ask people, could you vote for someone who disagreed with you on the gun issue, whichever side you are on, 41 percent of people who support gun rights say, no, I couldn't vote for anyone who was on the other side on guns regardless of all their other policy positions. Single-issue voting is very powerful, and there's more of it on the gun rights side.

MARTIN: Michael Dimock is president of the Pew Research Center. Thanks so much for coming in.

DIMOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.