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Most Americans Oppose Gun Control—Up to a Point, Survey Finds

Professor Nathaniel Persily Co-Author of Poll on Attitudes and Perception on Constitutional Issues and Controversies

 

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New York, July 26, 2010—Most Americans believe the Second Amendment gives people the right to keep a gun at home, but they still favor limits on certain weapons, according to a new survey co-authored by Nathaniel Persily, the Charles Keller Beekman Professor of Law and Political Science.
 
 “At a base level, Americans believe in the right to bear arms and own a gun,” said Persily, who collaborated on the poll with Harvard University Professor Stephen Ansolabehere.
 
Persily, a leading constitutional scholar and political scientist, is also the Director of the Center for Law and Politics at Columbia Law School, and co-edited the book Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy, which examined the effect court decisions have on public opinion.
 
Some 76 percent of the 1,027 persons surveyed online by Knowledge Networks oppose attempts to ban handgun ownership. Almost as many—72 percent—believe the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own a gun, while 25 percent say the “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” found in the amendment is confined to forming a militia.
 
"The Supreme Court's recent decisions confirming an individual's right to own a gun, while recognizing the constitutionality of some limits, has broad support among the American public,” Persily said.

However, the survey found most people opposed unfettered access to weapons. Some 56 percent favor a ban on carrying handguns in public places, while 61 percent would forbid ownership of assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons. Ninety percent also support registration and background checks before a gun could be bought.
 
On other constitutional issues, the survey found:
 
  • Some 70 percent agree that police should have the right to stop anyone they believe is an illegal alien and request identification. 
  • Nearly two thirds of respondents -- 65 percent -- believe that the Supreme Court should not overturn Roe v. Wade guaranteeing a woma's right to have an abortion.
  • Just 36 percent support allowing a state to sentence a juvenile to life in prison for an armed burglary in which no one was killed. The federal government, 37 states, and the District of Columbia allow for such punishments. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that a life sentence for crimes of this nature was unconstitutional.
  • On First Amendment matters, 56 percent would ban the sale of video games depicting extreme violence; 59 percent would allow musicians to sing songs with words others might find offensive, but only 27 percent support the right of someone to burn or deface the American flag as a form of political expression.
 
Most surveyed (71 percent) agree the Environmental Protection Agency should have the power to limit greenhouse gases that come from cars and power plants. A bid in the Senate to strip the EPA of that authority narrowly failed in June.
 
Also, two-thirds of respondents say gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military, which Persily said has virtually become a “non-issue” among the public.
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