Most U.S. gun owners support stronger gun laws

(Reuters Health) - While gun owners and non-gun owners disagree on a handful of proposed policies, they agree on many new measures to strengthen gun laws, according to a new study.

A majority in both groups supports universal background checks, greater accountability for licensed gun dealers, higher safety training standards for concealed-carry permit holders, improved reporting of records related to mental illness for background checks, gun prohibitions for those with temporary domestic violence restraining orders, and gun violence restraining orders.

“We dwell so much on the areas where Americans are divided on guns, and we wanted to look for the important areas where Americans can agree,” said lead study author Dr. Colleen Barry of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nearly 39,000 people die from firearm injuries in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This has increased from 33,000 since 2014.

“We realized very little research has been done on Americans’ specific views on gun policies,” Barry told Reuters Health by phone. “This is the kind of information that politicians and state legislators need to figure out whether to enact specific laws.”

In January 2017, Barry and colleagues surveyed a representative sample of more than 2,000 Americans through an online panel and asked whether they supported 24 different policies. The policies covered background checks, gun dealers’ licenses, temporary domestic violence restraining orders, gun safety measures, and differentiation between types of guns and ammunition available for sale.

The policies with the highest support from both groups - in the 80 percent range - included universal background checks, stronger measures requiring accountability by gun dealers unable to account for missing guns, a test that demonstrates safe and lawful gun handling for those legally allowed to carry a concealed gun, improved reporting of people disqualified from owning a gun due to mental health criteria, gun prohibitions for people with temporary domestic violence restraining orders, and laws that create a civil process for families to petition the court for temporary removal of a firearm from those deemed to be at serious risk for harming themselves or others.

Eight of the 24 policies had more than a 10-point support gap between gun owners and non-gun owners. These included banning the sale of large-capacity magazines, banning the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons, allowing a person to carry a concealed gun onto school grounds, requiring the gun owner to lock up guns when not in use, prohibiting someone younger than 21 from having a handgun, requiring someone to obtain a license from local law enforcement before buying a gun, prohibiting someone convicted of assault and battery from having a gun for 10 years, and allowing cities to sue licensed gun dealers when evidence indicates the dealer’s careless sales allowed criminals to buy guns.

“Our intuition is that advancing policy might be more feasible where the differences are the smallest,” Barry said. “Given the scale of gun violence and our limited resources to push through change, we want to focus on the policies that could make the greatest impact.”

One limitation of the national survey is that it was unable to track opinion gaps at the state and local level, where many of these policies would be enacted, the study authors wrote. California, for instance, has a gun violence restraining order policy already, and several studies are now evaluating its effects. Legislators and researchers also are looking at ways to make comprehensive background checks more effective.

“Pairing background check policies with purchaser licenses might be more effective, so we’re looking at ways to design and implement a policy that would help,” said Rose Kagawa of the University of California at Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, who researches comprehensive background check policies and firearm homicide and suicide numbers.

Kagawa, who wasn’t involved with this study, said in a phone call with Reuters Health, “How many injuries could be avoided? What are the implications and tradeoffs? What are the pros and cons? Specific policies haven’t received the attention in research that you might expect. We need to be doing this research.”

The Harvard Medical School Gun Violence Prevention Coalition is also looking at what role doctors should play in the gun violence conversation. The group is investigating the best ways doctors and patients can talk about injury prevention and firearm safety, particularly the efficacy of screening high-risk patients for self-harm.

“Most clinicians don’t feel comfortable having this conversation, and it’s not difficult to understand why,” said Dr. Chana Sacks of the Harvard coalition. Sacks became involved when her cousin’s 7-year-old son, Daniel, was shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012.

“How do we better connect them with community resources to help patients?” she told Reuters Health by phone. “What we want to know is, What opportunities do we have to make meaningful change now that don’t require laws to be passed?”

According to Sacks, the idea that Americans are hugely divided on gun issues is easy to perpetuate, but opinions are more nuanced when looking at particular policies.

“Look at how much common ground there is,” she said. “It really does offer a path forward.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online May 17, 2018.