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Californians show strong support for strict gun control measures

Background checks and tougher penalties for the illegal purchase of firearms have broad support in California, as does the proposed federal assault weapons ban.

March 22, 2013|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

Californians are overwhelmingly in favor of strict gun control measures that impose background checks for all gun purchases and toughen penalties for illegally purchasing or using a gun, as well as enhancing efforts to keep guns away from the severely mentally ill, a new poll has found.

Sweeping majorities of California voters backed a proposed federal ban on the sale of assault weapons. They also backed state proposals to prohibit the possession of large-capacity magazines, background checks for the purchase of ammunition and a requirement that all gun owners be registered, licensed and insured, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The findings often cut across demographic and political lines: Nine of ten gun owners and slightly more among non-owners favored background checks for all gun purchases. Eighty-seven percent of conservatives shared that position, along with 96% of liberals.

But even in a state that is home to some of the nation's strictest gun-control laws, voters were more closely divided over some measures now being considered by state lawmakers. Those included whether to enact a five-cent tax on every bullet or allow schools to hire armed guards. One measure was a clear loser, as two-thirds opposed arming teachers in order to protect their students.

"Everybody agrees on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people — criminals and the mentally ill — and on punitive measures against criminal enterprises. Those are no-brainers," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the survey with the Republican polling company American Viewpoint.

But "when you get to the some of the more … nanny-state-type proposals, you've got a little bit of a difference there."

The findings come three months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., reignited the gun debate. President Obama set gun control measures as a priority at the start of his second term; the Senate and House have been tussling over whether the federal government should take steps to protect citizens from gun violence or to minimize restrictions on gun owners.

Legislation including an assault-weapons ban championed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to exclude the ban and move ahead with legislation focused on more popular elements, such as improving school safety. Expanded background checks and harsher penalties for gun trafficking also are among the proposals that could be voted on in the Senate next month.

In California, legislators are working on a parallel track with a host of other gun control proposals. Among them are the bullet tax, heightened protections for schools and the registration, insuring and licensing of all gun owners. The state already bans assault weapons, has imposed universal background checks and limits the size of ammunition magazines for sale.

Besides the background checks, voters expressed strong support for increasing the penalties for committing a crime with a gun (87%) and increasing the punishment for illegally buying, selling or possessing a gun (85%). Republicans overwhelmingly joined Democrats in supporting both.

Harold Goss, a Republican from Hemet who owns a hunting rifle and a .22-caliber firearm, adamantly supports the right of Americans to own guns. But he also strongly backs background checks and bans on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"I believe everyone should have a gun to protect their house and protect their family," he said. "But it doesn't need to be an extreme thing."

Criminals have excessive access to firearms, the 37-year-old said, and no civilian needs to own certain weapons.

"High-capacity magazines, a lot of rounds, it's uncalled for," he said.

Still, Californians seemed divided when matters turned more theoretical. Asked about the role of government in regulating guns, 45% said "common-sense" reforms were necessary, while 46% said the government should better enforce existing laws.

But when asked which deserved more protection — people, from gun violence, or Americans' right to own guns — the gap grew. Just over half said it was more important to protect people from gun violence than to fully protect gun owners, compared to 37% who held the opposite view.

And the positions on specific policy proposals were distinct. Nearly four in five Californians supported requiring a thumbprint and identification to purchase ammunition, including two-thirds of gun owners. The proposal to require gun owners to be registered, licensed and insured won the support of 71%, including half of gun owners.

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