Protecting guns or fighting gun violence? 7 out of 10 Republicans say the former is more important.

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The debate over gun ownership in the United States is complicated and complex. Every argument has a nuance; each proposal includes asterisks. Both sides often see their position in absolute terms, a view that the other side is always quick to note ignores real boundaries.

It is, in other words, a debate that can defy simple categorization. In a new poll conducted by Marist for NPR and PBS NewsHour, however, pollsters have drawn an interesting and helpful line to examine the guns and gun violence debate.

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Respondents were asked which they thought was more important: protecting gun rights or controlling gun violence. It’s a simple dichotomy – admittedly simpler than the debate itself but one that allows for gradation. Is it more important to protect people’s right to own guns, or is it more important to fight the wave of gun-related deaths in the United States?

Overall, Americans were more likely to say controlling gun violence is more important, 59-35%. Among gun owners, as one might expect, protecting gun rights was the majority position, albeit just barely.

The biggest divide, in fact, wasn’t over gun ownership. It was a party. Democrats said controlling gun violence was more important by nearly 90 points. Independents said the same, more narrowly. Among Republicans, however, more than two-thirds said protecting gun ownership was more important — a higher level of support than even among gun owners themselves.

Other divides in the poll similarly align on partisanship. White Americans without a college degree — a strongly Republican group — are more likely to say protecting gun rights is more important. The same is true for Americans who live in rural areas, in part, it’s safe to assume, because they’re also more likely to own a gun.

Given that the gun violence debate is currently centered on the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, it is interesting to note that people without children at home place more importance on controlling the gun violence than parents with young children at home. Less surprising is the gender divide, with men more likely to say protecting gun rights is more important than were women.

Marist posed the same question in 2013. At that time, the nation was about evenly divided over which goal was more important. What has changed since? Democrats have become much more likely to say tackling gun violence is more important.

Independents have shifted from being more likely to prioritize gun rights to focusing on controlling gun violence.

What has changed since 2013? The polarization has certainly increased. But so does the number of gun deaths in the United States. Gun violence has increased and mass shootings, which tend to crystallize sentiment about gun ownership, have continued unabated.

The result is a broader sense that reducing gun violence should be seen as more important than protecting the rights of gun owners — except among members of the party that controls half the Senate and nearly half from the room.


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