Eagleton Poll: 77% of New Jerseyans think controlling guns more critical than gun rights

Following the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 77 percent of New Jersey adults are “very concerned” about gun violence in America, a significant increase from the 66 percent who were very concerned in a late August Rutgers-Eagleton poll of registered voters. Seventy-two percent of Garden Staters now think controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun owner rights, up from 65 percent in August.

More than a quarter of all New Jerseyans say gun control is the most important issue facing the country today, while another 50 percent say it is one of a few very important issues. Only 5 percent say it is unimportant.

Among the 20 percent with a gun owner in their household, six in 10 are very concerned about gun violence, up from 43 percent from August; among nongun-owning households, 82 percent are very concerned, up 12 points. And in another sharp increase following the latest shooting, 57 percent of those in gun-owning households now think controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun owner rights, up from 41 percent in August. More than 60 percent of those with gun owners in the household say gun control is a very important or the most important issue today, as do 81 percent of others.

“Prior to the latest shooting, gun control wasn’t even on the national agenda,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Now three-quarters of New Jerseyans consider it a very important issue. Concern has skyrocketed among nongun owners, but has increased even more among those in gun-owning households. But it is worth noting that New Jersey is much more pro-gun control than the nation, where a recent Pew poll showed 49 percent favor controlling gun ownership while 42 percent prefer protecting gun owner rights.” 

Results are from a poll of 663 adults conducted statewide among landline and cell phone households Dec. 19 and 20, with a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percentage points.

Universal awareness of Sandy Hook shooting

Virtually all New Jerseyans (96 percent) say they have heard “a lot” about the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Only 4 percent say they have heard only a little, and less than 1 percent say they have heard nothing. Few events have such universal awareness, noted Redlawsk. “The extensive media coverage and intense social networking discussions have reached all New Jerseyans and have created an environment for the serious discussion of gun issues beyond any previous mass shooting.” 

Most New Jerseyans also say the time immediately after a mass shooting is the right time to talk about gun control. Only 27 percent think it is the wrong time to have a national discussion on gun issues. Even a majority of gun owners agree that now is the right time for this discussion, while 42 percent say it is the wrong time.

Large majorities of Democrats (76 percent) and independents (70 percent) think it is time to have a national discussion about gun laws following the Newtown shooting. Even a majority of Republicans (53 percent) agrees. Women are more willing to discuss the issue now (72 percent) while 66 percent of men agree it is the right time. Senior citizens are the most willing to hold the discussion immediately following a mass shooting, at 80 percent, while 61 percent of those under 30 say it is the right time.

Concern has grown

The August Eagleton Poll took place just a few weeks after the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisc., on Aug. 5, and during that poll there was a shooting in New York’s Times Square. Even so, those results showed little change in attitudes about gun control from a previous New Jersey poll in 1999. This time is different, at least in the short run. Concern over guns has grown among virtually every demographic group. Nearly 71 percent of men are now very concerned, up 14 points from August, while 83 percent of women are very concerned, up from 73 percent. 

Concern among Republicans is up four points, with 59 percent very concerned, while 88 percent of Democrats are now very concerned, up seven points. Concern among independents has jumped 16 points to 75 percent. “Where independents previously seemed closer to Republicans in their concern about guns, there has been a seismic shift, so that they are now moving closer to Democrats,” Redlawsk noted.

The shooting in Newtown seems to have galvanized young people the most. In August, only 47 percent of voters under 30 were very concerned about guns. Today that has jumped to 68 percent of Garden Staters under 30. 

“Guns have become a daily conversation in the week following the shooting,” said Redlawsk. “With concern this high, there is pressure on politicians to act. However, as this news fades and new issues come forward, that pressure may fade unless people remain as worried as they are now.”

Strong support for a range of policies

The poll asked Garden Staters about five potential policies relating to guns; four of the five received strong support, while the fifth, a constitutional amendment to overturn the Second Amendment, gets much less support, even in nongun owning households.

Ninety-one percent of New Jerseyans support requiring more extensive background checks for gun buyers, with 84 percent strongly supporting these checks. Among households with gun owners, 72 percent strongly support increased background checks, as do 78 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats.

Nearly as many are in favor of reinstating the federal assault weapons ban; 76 percent strongly support it, and 8 percent support it somewhat. Those with gun owners in their households are not far behind, with 68 percent strongly supporting and 9 percent somewhat supporting a renewal of the ban. Even two-thirds of New Jersey Republicans back a renewed ban, along with 81 percent of Democrats. 

Increased waiting periods before buying guns garner strong support from 72 percent, with 14 percent somewhat supportive. Gun-owning households are much less supportive of this proposal: only 58 percent strongly support it, while another 16 percent are somewhat supportive. Likewise, there is a 19-point gap between Republicans (62 percent strongly support) and Democrats (81 percent) on increasing waiting periods.

About 72 percent of all Garden Staters and 67 percent of gun-owning households want increased public health funding to reduce potential gun violence, but there is strong support for this proposal among only 46 percent of all adults, including 39 percent of households with guns. Only one-third of Republicans strongly support this proposal, compared to nearly twice as many Democrats.

“Given this realistic set of policy options, there is general agreement that things need to be done,” said Redlawsk. “While Republicans and households with gun owners are less supportive of all of these proposals, the ones directly about guns – banning assault weapons, extensive background checks, and increased waiting periods – get strong support across the board.”

When it comes to a constitutional amendment to ban private ownership of weapons, a policy no one is proposing, a surprising number of New Jerseyans are supportive, though not a majority. Among all adults, just under one-third supports a constitutional amendment to ban private gun ownership. A bare majority of liberals supports such a move, but across other demographic groups there is less support, with the exception of black New Jerseyans, 49 percent of whom are supportive. Forty-four percent of women support such an amendment, but only 31 percent of men agree. Among households without gun owners, 43 percent are at least somewhat supportive (30 percent of whom strongly support a ban), but that drops to 18 percent in households where someone owns a gun.

“It is close to certain there will never be such an amendment,” said Redlawsk. “But by asking this question we get a sense of how strongly many people oppose any private ownership of guns.”

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