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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Public Perspectives: Public Opinion about Gun Policies
Tom W. Smith

Introduction

On contentious issues such as gun control, where advocacy groups on both sides claim to have the weight of public opinion behind them, polling can help clarify what Americans really think. Three decades of polling have painted a clear picture of public opinion about gun control. These polls show that public support for the regulation of firearms is strong, deep, and widespread.1 Large majorities back most policies to control the manufacture and sale of guns, increase gun safety, and restrict criminals from acquiring firearms. This general support for gun control extends to policies specifically intended to prevent children's access to guns and reduce youth gun violence.

This article outlines the level of public support for gun control measures. It begins with a description of Americans' broad-based support for virtually every type of firearms regulation and an assessment of how strongly gun control supporters feel about the issue. The next section of this article focuses on Americans' attitudes toward firearms regulation to protect children and youth. The article concludes with an examination of historical trends in public opinion about guns—making the point that American public opinion about gun control is fixed and unlikely to change much over time.

The article relies primarily on public opinion polling data from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.2 The NORC General Social Survey currently polls 3,000 Americans biennially regarding their attitudes on social issues. Since 1972, it has assessed Americans' attitudes toward firearms regulation. From 1996 to 1999, NORC also conducted the annual National Gun Policy Survey. Taken together, the NORC data provide the most complete picture available of American public opinion about guns and of how public opinion has evolved over time.3