clock menu more-arrow no yes

Voters back Joe Biden’s gun control plan. It’s not clear if the evidence does.

A majority of voters support universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

Semi-automatic rifles are seen for sale in a gun shop in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 4, 2017.
Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Americans are broadly in favor of regulations on assault weapons and background checks for gun purchases, a new poll from Data for Progress and Vox finds. However, these measures are likely to only have a moderate impact on the country’s sky high rates of gun violence.

The poll, conducted March 19-21 (after the shootings in Atlanta but before the shooting in Boulder, Colorado), surveyed 1291 likely voters and has a 3 percentage point sampling margin of error. A third of respondents said they have a gun in the home. (Other surveys not restricted to likely voters have shown gun ownership rates of around 40 percent, indicating this sample may have fewer gun owners than is representative or that the average voter is less likely to own guns than the average American.)

Following the recent shootings, calls for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban have rebounded through the Democratic Party, including from President Joe Biden.

The poll finds both of these policies are widely popular. When asked if they would support “a bill that would require a background check for all gun purchases,” 65 percent of respondents said yes, with just 27 percent opposed — including 48 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents.

When asked about “banning the manufacture, possession, and sale of semi-automatic guns, known as assault rifles,” 61 percent were in favor — including 45 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents. These findings are consistent with other surveys showing majority support for these measures.

Democrats have been calling for gun control measures for years in response to mass shootings, but the efficacy of these proposals is less often discussed. The fundamental reality about the US gun problem is that it’s a function of how many guns Americans have. Heavily reducing that stockpile may be the only way to significantly reduce America’s out of control gun deaths, as Vox’s German Lopez has highlighted in his reporting on the issue:

Gun control policies that don’t confront the core issue — that America simply has too many guns — are doomed to merely nibble around the edges. Everywhere in the world, people get into arguments. Every country has residents who are dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness. Every country has bigots and extremists. But here, it’s uniquely easy for a person to obtain a gun, letting otherwise tense but nonlethal conflicts escalate into deadly violence.

A chart showing civilian gun ownership rates by country. Small Arms Survey

Universal background checks don’t directly influence the number of guns owned by Americans. As Lopez explained, they “can screen out some people from getting a gun ... recent studies suggest even universal background checks, on their own, don’t have a big impact on gun deaths.” Another policy in the DFP/Vox poll drawing support is the creation of a database to track gun sales. While these efforts could help investigators and make it harder for certain people to access guns, neither of them get at the root of the problem.

An assault weapons ban would be a bigger first step.

Banning the manufacture, ownership, and sale of these types of guns does reduce the number of guns in circulation by definition. Lopez reports that an assault weapons ban could reduce the deadliness of some mass shootings “but wouldn’t address the 70-plus percent of firearm homicides that involve a handgun.”

A mandatory buyback program, similar to what Australia implemented after a mass shooting killed 35 people, is a clear avenue for success. The Vox/DFP poll asked respondents about a mandatory buyback program for semi-automatic weapons and found majority support (54 percent), with a voluntary program receiving even more support (62 percent).

Another idea, championed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, would be requiring a license to buy and own a gun. This issue doesn’t directly reduce the number of guns in circulation, but can make it more onerous to obtain a gun, thereby reducing the population of gun owners, as Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research told Lopez:

“The end impact is you decrease gun ownership overall,” Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher (and gun owner) at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me. “Lots of folks think, ‘Well, it’s probably not worth going through all these hoops to buy firearms, so I’m not going to buy one.’ And then you have fewer firearms around, and less exposure.”

Massachusetts, which has a similar program, has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country.

Democrats aren’t pushing for a national licensing program right now, but the Vox/DFP poll suggests that 70 percent of voters would be in favor of one, including a majority of Republicans (53 percent).

Roughly 39,000 Americans die from guns every year. Mass shootings draw attention to this problem, but everyday suicides and violent confrontations that unnecessarily escalate to homicide due to the easy availability of guns are the norm in the United States. If policymakers are serious about changing this, dramatically reducing the number of guns is the path forward.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.