POLITICS
05/24/2013 05:19 am ET Updated May 24, 2013

Gun Control Polls Reveal Frustration With Both Parties, High Ongoing Support For Background Checks

Support for expanding background checks to more gun purchases remains high, according to polls released Thursday. But the surveys provide mixed evidence on how the Senate's defeat of the Manchin-Toomey proposal might affect future electoral support for opponents of greater background checks.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday and conducted earlier in May, 81 percent of Americans said they continue to back making gun show and private firearms sales subject to background checks, while only 17 percent said they were opposed. A HuffPost/YouGov poll also conducted in early May showed respondents in favor of expanding background checks by a 74 percent to 16 percent margin.

Both the Pew survey and a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that support for the defeated Manchin-Toomey measure, which would have expanded background checks to all gun show and online purchases, is also widespread. In the Pew survey, 73 percent said the Manchin-Toomey proposal should be passed if reintroduced, while 67 percent of respondents to the Post/ABC poll said the Senate did the wrong thing in rejecting the legislation.

Americans were more likely to tell Pew that they supported expanding background checks generally than that they wanted Congress to pass the Manchin-Toomey measure. Much that drop-off occurred among Republicans, 81 percent of whom said they favor greater checks but only 57 percent of whom said they want the specific proposal to pass.

The Pew survey found a close divide between the 50 percent who said it's more important to "control gun ownership" and the 48 percent who said it's more important to "protect the rights of Americans to own guns." But when asked whether they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on gun policy even if they agreed on other issues, those emphasizing gun rights were more likely to say no (41 percent) than those emphasizing gun control (31 percent). The former were also more likely to say they have donated money to an organization taking a position on gun policy, by 12 percent to 3 percent. The two groups were about equally likely to say they have contacted an elected official to express an opinion on gun policy.

In other words, the Pew poll confirms the conventional wisdom of an enthusiasm gap in favor of opponents of gun control. But the Post/ABC poll suggests that the enthusiasm edge goes to gun control supporters on the specific issue of background checks.

Among Post/ABC survey respondents who said the Senate did the right thing in defeating background checks legislation, 53 percent said they could still support a candidate who voted for greater background checks if they agreed with that candidate on other issues. But among those who said the Senate did the wrong thing, 55 percent said they could not support an otherwise acceptable candidate who opposed the Manchin-Toomey legislation.

Scott Clement and Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post note that among all registered voters in the survey, 35 percent said they would rule out a candidate who opposed expanding background checks and only 14 percent said they would rule out one who supported doing so. Clement and Sullivan also wrote that there was little difference between those numbers nationally and in states where senators earned high ratings from the National Rifle Association. All of this suggests that background checks are an exception to how Americans usually think about gun control.

On the other hand, the HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted earlier in May found evidence that opponents were the ones paying closest attention to legislation on the issue. Fifty-five percent of background check opponents, but only 40 percent of proponents, said they had "heard a lot" about the Senate's defeat of the measure. That was the case despite apparently high enthusiasm among those in favor of the measure, with 48 percent of respondents (and an equal percentage of registered voters) saying it was "very important" that the Senate expand background checks and another 16 percent saying it was "somewhat important."

The Post/ABC and HuffPost/YouGov polls also found little evidence that the Senate legislation's defeat at the hands of mostly Republican senators (with the help of a few Democrats) has hurt Republicans on the issue of gun control overall.

In the Post/ABC poll, when asked whom they trust more on handling gun control, 42 percent of respondents said President Barack Obama and 41 percent said Republicans -- the same percentages found by a Post/ABC poll conducted before the background checks measure was defeated. That was true even though the poll found that, among those who said the Senate did the wrong thing in defeating the background checks legislation, 64 percent blamed Republicans for the defeat and only 17 percent blamed Obama.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll similarly found that Americans were equally likely to say they trust Republicans and Democrats on the issue. Those who oppose expanding background checks trusted Republicans more, by 87 percent to 6 percent, while those in favor of greater checks were more divided, with 49 percent trusting Democrats more and 24 percent trusting Republicans more.

In fact, the HuffPost/YouGov poll provides some evidence that the Manchin-Toomey measure's defeat may have hurt both Republicans and Democrats. Overall, 36 percent said the defeat left them with a less favorable opinion of the Republican Party, and just 18 percent said it gave them a more favorable opinion. But 26 percent said the defeat gave them a less favorable view of the Democratic Party, and only 11 percent said it gave them a more favorable view. Even Democrats and those who said they favor background checks were more likely to say their opinion of the Democratic Party had fallen than risen, perhaps reflecting the high profile of the four Democrats who opposed the background checks measure.

If the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey legislation has simply led to more frustration with both parties, neither may benefit despite Americans' strong feelings in favor of the measure.

The Pew Research Center poll was conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 randomly selected U.S. adults, and the Washington Post/ABC News poll was conducted May 16-19 among 1,001 randomly selected adults. Both surveys used live telephone interviewers calling landlines and cellphones.

The Huffpost/YouGov poll was conducted May 3-4 among 1,000 adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

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