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Survey finds strong support for gun control, more mental healthcare

January 31, 2013|By Melissa Healy
  • With gun control measures on the agenda, a new survey finds strong support -- even among gun owners -- for tougher restrictions on buying guns. Here, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) points to a graphic showing guns now in wide circulation in the U.S.
With gun control measures on the agenda, a new survey finds strong support… (Chip Somodevilla / AFP/Getty…)

New survey results published Thursday by the New England Journal of Medicine show that a majority of  Americans -- gun owners and non-owners alike -- support stricter measures to keep handguns from people under 21 and to block ownership of any guns for 10 years by those who have perpetrated domestic violence, brandished a weapon in a threatening manner, or committed two or more drug- or alcohol-related crimes.

But a murkier picture emerged when Americans were asked about keeping guns out of the hands of those with mental illness. Almost 70% of respondents supported greater government spending and insurance coverage for mental healthcare as a means of averting gun violence. But fear and suspicion of those with mental illness were also strongly evident.

The surveys -- published online first by the journal -- were taken between Jan. 2 and Jan. 14. One tracked public opinion on gun control policy, and a second, polling a separate but also representative sample of Americans, gauged respondents' views on mental illness, and touched briefly on its connection to gun policy.

Large majorities -- between 75% and 85% -- said that states, healthcare providers and the military should be required to notify a central background-check registry when a person has been declared mentally incompetent or committed to psychiatric care involuntarily, has threatened to harm himself or others, or has been rejected from service due to mental illness or drug- or alcohol-abuse. And fewer than one-third of respondents were inclined to believe that, with treatment, a person with a serious mental illness would ever be well enough to safely own a gun.

The survey showed that slim majorities of Americans -- about 54% overall -- do not believe that those with mental illness are "by far, more dangerous than the general population." At the same time, however, roughly 3 in 10 of those surveyed said they would not want to have someone with a serious mental illness as a neighbor or a coworker.

Yet, respondents were more skeptical of giving police the right to strip guns from a person that may be emotionally disturbed: 55% of people who did not own guns agreed that police officers should be allowed to search for and remove guns, without a warrant, from a person they believed to be dangerous due to mental illness, emotional instability or a propensity to violence. Among gun owners, only 44% believed police should have such a right.

"Given the data on public attitudes about persons with mental illness, it is worth thinking carefully about how to implement effective gun-violence-prevention measures without exacerbating stigma or discouraging people from seeking treatment," wrote the authors, led by Colleen L. Barry at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Center at UC Davis, said the survey captures a trend that has become increasingly evident in the last 15 years or so: Among the one-third of Americans who own guns, views on what measures should be taken to curb gun violence are not so far from those of the two-thirds who do not own a gun.

"The vast majority of the population approaches this problem as civic-minded people who want to live in a society that's safe and free and want to do well by their kids, and their gun ownership is incidental," said Wintemute, an emergency physician. Most gun owners reacted to the shooting of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month as parents and citizens, said Wintemute, not as gun owners.

"It is deeply ironic that our current firearms policies omit regulations that are endorsed by firearms owners, let alone by the general public," Wintemute wrote in an article appearing alongside the public-opinion survey in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Read more on the Newtown shootings and the aftermath:

Predicting violent behavior: not guesswork, but far from certain

and Adam Lanza: Will genetics reveal what sleuthing cannot?

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