Californians show strong support for strict gun control measures

Californians are overwhelmingly in favor of strict gun control measures that impose background checks for all gun purchases and toughen penalties for illegally purchasing or using a gun, as well as enhancing efforts to keep guns away from the severely mentally ill, a new poll has found.

Sweeping majorities of California voters backed a proposed federal ban on the sale of assault weapons. They also backed state proposals to prohibit the possession of large-capacity magazines, background checks for the purchase of ammunition and a requirement that all gun owners be registered, licensed and insured, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The findings often cut across demographic and political lines: Nine of ten gun owners and slightly more among non-owners favored background checks for all gun purchases. Eighty-seven percent of conservatives shared that position, along with 96% of liberals.

But even in a state that is home to some of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws, voters were more closely divided over some measures now being considered by state lawmakers. Those included whether to enact a five-cent tax on every bullet or allow schools to hire armed guards. One measure was a clear loser, as two-thirds opposed arming teachers in order to protect their students.

“Everybody agrees on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people — criminals and the mentally ill — and on punitive measures against criminal enterprises. Those are no-brainers,” said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the survey with the Republican polling company American Viewpoint.


But “when you get to the some of the more … nanny-state-type proposals, you’ve got a little bit of a difference there.”

The findings come three months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., reignited the gun debate. President Obama set gun control measures as a priority at the start of his second term; the Senate and House have been tussling over whether the federal government should take steps to protect citizens from gun violence or to minimize restrictions on gun owners.

Legislation including an assault-weapons ban championed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to exclude the ban and move ahead with legislation focused on more popular elements, such as improving school safety. Expanded background checks and harsher penalties for gun trafficking also are among the proposals that could be voted on in the Senate next month.

In California, legislators are working on a parallel track with a host of other gun control proposals. Among them are the bullet tax, heightened protections for schools and the registration, insuring and licensing of all gun owners. The state already bans assault weapons, has imposed universal background checks and limits the size of ammunition magazines for sale.

Besides the background checks, voters expressed strong support for increasing the penalties for committing a crime with a gun (87%) and increasing the punishment for illegally buying, selling or possessing a gun (85%). Republicans overwhelmingly joined Democrats in supporting both.

Harold Goss, a Republican from Hemet who owns a hunting rifle and a .22-caliber firearm, adamantly supports the right of Americans to own guns. But he also strongly backs background checks and bans on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“I believe everyone should have a gun to protect their house and protect their family,” he said. “But it doesn’t need to be an extreme thing.”

Criminals have excessive access to firearms, the 37-year-old said, and no civilian needs to own certain weapons.

“High-capacity magazines, a lot of rounds, it’s uncalled for,” he said.

Still, Californians seemed divided when matters turned more theoretical. Asked about the role of government in regulating guns, 45% said “common-sense” reforms were necessary, while 46% said the government should better enforce existing laws.

But when asked which deserved more protection — people, from gun violence, or Americans’ right to own guns — the gap grew. Just over half said it was more important to protect people from gun violence than to fully protect gun owners, compared to 37% who held the opposite view.

And the positions on specific policy proposals were distinct. Nearly four in five Californians supported requiring a thumbprint and identification to purchase ammunition, including two-thirds of gun owners. The proposal to require gun owners to be registered, licensed and insured won the support of 71%, including half of gun owners.

The proposed federal assault-weapons ban was supported by 62% of voters and a ban on magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds won the support of 58%. Gun owners were split about the assault-weapons ban, and just over half opposed the restriction on high-capacity magazines.

John Swenson, 65, is a gun owner who supports mandatory background checks but opposes both bans as “an infringement on the 2nd Amendment.”

“Citizens should have access to guns if they pass background checks,” said the retired auto mechanic who lives in Sonora, about 60 miles east of Stockton.

Fearing that the government would have a “knee-jerk reaction” to shootings in recent years, Swenson bought a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol in late 2011. “I figured I better go get one.”

Certainly some of the state’s generally anti-gun attitudes flowed from its partisan cast and the fact that, as a whole, California has fewer guns per household than other states. The survey found that 26% either owned a gun or shared a household with someone who did. Nationally, that figure is 36%.

Republicans and residents of the Central Valley were more protective of gun rights, while Democrats and residents of the Bay Area and Los Angeles County were more supportive of increased regulation.

Overall, whites were nearly twice as likely to own a gun as Latinos, and their reasons for owning weapons varied. Whites most often said they used their guns for target shooting, while most Latinos said they had guns for protection.

Latinos generally were more supportive of stricter gun laws than whites. On the five-cent bullet tax, for one: Just over half of those surveyed supported the proposal, but the demographic split was deep — 46% of whites backed the move compared to 66% of Latinos. Latinos also felt more favorable about allowing schools to hire armed security guards, with 59% supporting such a move, compared to 47% of whites.

As she explained her support of armed school guards, Silvia Sarabia, a Latina Democrat from Glendale, pointed to the shooting in Newtown in which 20 children and six staff members were killed.

“There are a lot of crazy people. Look at what happened at the schools, look at how many kids they’ve killed,” said the 49-year-old mother of three. “They should have someone protecting them.”

But like two-thirds of voters polled, Sarabia opposed arming teachers or other school employees who were not guards. It was the least popular proposal in the poll.

“No one wants to see a math teacher with a holster on her hip as she’s teaching kids,” said David Kanevsky, research director at American Viewpoint.

The poll, which interviewed 1,501 registered voters by telephone, was conducted from March 11-17 for the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. The survey has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points in either direction, with a higher margin of error for subgroups.