Americans overwhelmingly want semiautomatic assault rifles banned but are unsure how to go about it and are not confident that a ban would work.
A Times poll shows that Americans, by a ratio of 4 to 1, want AK-47s, Uzis and other assault rifles made illegal. Strong feelings against such weapons cut across political, gender, ethnic, educational and geographical lines, I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll, said.
But those questioned in the nationwide telephone survey were divided on whether such firearms should be confiscated or bought by the government or whether current owners should be exempt from a ban.
The poll showed that 24% favored confiscation, 30% favored a buy-out plan and 32% said that current owners should be allowed to keep their assault rifles but that no more should be sold.
Moreover, a little more than half said that they agree with the argument of those who oppose gun controls: that only law-abiding citizens would comply with an assault rifle ban, which would leave the firearms in the hands of criminals.
Both proponents and opponents of assault rifle control found something to be encouraged about in the poll.
Gregg Risch, communications director of Handgun Control Inc., said that the poll confirms "the kind of feedback we've been getting from the grass roots for quite a while now."
As to the poll's finding that there is widespread skepticism about the effectiveness of laws banning assault rifles, Risch said: "We are not so naive as to say that legislation will prevent every criminal from obtaining . . . weapons ever again. (But) legislation limiting the availability of these assault weapons will have a very real effect on the streets of America."
Pam Pryor, spokesman for the National Rifle Assn., said the skepticism shown in the poll is well grounded.
"It's obvious that a lot of people do agree that (banning assault weapons) won't be effective and what we need to do is pass some laws that really do affect criminals," she said.
Pryor dismissed the poll's findings that most Americans strongly favor gun control as "a lot of emotional noise" but added: "I think your poll results are very understandable within the emotional arena we're dealing with right now."
Pryor contended that questions using the words "assault rifle," "AK-47" and "Uzi," rather than simply using the term "semiautomatic rifle," unfairly biased the poll.
In the wake of the Jan. 17 Stockton schoolyard shooting in which five children were killed with an AK-47, the Times poll indicated, the American public's fear of assault weapons is so deep that it easily overcomes consideration of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
Those polled agreed by a 2-1 ratio that "the interests of public safety outweigh this constitutional protection."
Historically, any attempt at gun control has been a politically hot, often partisan issue. In the California Legislature this month, for example, lawmakers lined up generally along party lines in passing Senate and Assembly versions of bills to regulate assault rifles, with far more Democrats than Republicans in favor of the legislation.
But the Times poll indicated that, nationwide, Democrats, Republicans and independents all favor banning assault rifles by large margins: 72% of the Democrats, 66% of Republicans and 70% of those who described themselves as independent wanted them made illegal.
Opposition to the weapons carries across ideological lines also, according to the poll. Of those who call themselves liberals, 73% want the weapons banned, as do 75% of moderates and 68% of conservatives.
Those polled rejected by a 3-1 ratio a key gun lobby argument that assault rifles are legitimate sporting firearms: 70% said assault rifles have no legitimate value, while 22% said they could be used for hunting or target practice.
President Bush's apparent vacillation on whether assault rifles should be controlled appears to have left Americans uncertain about his leadership role on the issue, the poll indicates. When asked if Bush has shown adequate leadership on the issue, 35% said yes, 32% said no and 33% were not sure.
Last month, Bush cited the rights of sportsmen to own semiautomatic rifles when he voiced opposition to a ban on them. But, on Tuesday, he seemed to soften his stance when he said there should be "some assurance that these automated attack weapons are not used in the manner they're being used."
On the same day, Bush's Treasury Department prohibited importation of firearms such as the Chinese-made AK-47 and the Israeli Uzi, pending a determination of whether such rifles have legitimate hunting or target-shooting value.
Even before the Stockton shooting--in which 29 schoolchildren and a teacher were wounded in addition to the five deaths--a coalition of law enforcement officials in California had drafted legislation to ban assault rifles.
Law enforcement officials maintain that the powerful rapid-fire rifles have become popular with drug dealers and street gangs, who frequently spray innocent bystanders with bullets and outgun police officers.
The Times poll contacted 1,158 adults nationwide on Wednesday and Thursday. Poll director Lewis said that the size of the sample produces a margin of error of four percentage points in either direction.