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Poll: Despite massacre, Americans split on guns

Investigators pressed ahead Saturday with their search for Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho's motives, even as more of his victims' families prepared for memorial services.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation is profoundly split along gender, racial and other lines over gun violence and what the government should do to control it, despite near-universal sorrow over the Virginia Tech shootings, an AP-Ipsos poll has found.

Women and minorities are far likelier than men and whites to view gun violence as a major problem, to worry about being shot and to want stricter firearms laws, said the survey, which was taken after the killings.

Fault lines also exist by political party and where people live, with Democrats and city dwellers taking a far dimmer view of guns than Republicans and suburban and rural residents.

“It’s just too easy for anybody to go in and buy a gun,” said Daphne Renolds, 59, an office manager from McDonough, Ga., a respondent in the AP survey.

Though Monday’s horrific killings of 32 students and teachers — plus the gunman — were fresh in people’s minds, there was scant movement in their attitude toward gun laws. Forty-seven percent said firearm controls should be tightened, 38 percent said they should remain unchanged and 11 percent said they should be loosened — about the same as in a January survey.

Six in 10 women think gun laws should be toughened, nearly double the proportion for men. Fifty-five percent of minorities favor stricter legal requirements, compared with 44 percent of whites.

“Would you put a sign out on your front lawn saying, ’This is a gun-free house’? That’s what you’re doing” by restricting guns, said building contractor Charles Clements, a 60-year-old white man who lives in St. Louis.

Federal law generally requires firearms dealers to conduct background checks on gun buyers, and prohibits sales to convicted felons and some people who have been legally declared to have mental problems. State restrictions vary widely, with differing rules over the types of weapons that can be sold, waiting periods for purchases and regulation of gun dealers.

Nearly 60 percent of Democrats favor stricter gun laws, almost double the number of Republicans, with more women in both parties supporting tougher standards.

Though the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado swelled public interest in gun control, the issue has barely been a blip in recent years when people are asked about their major national concerns. Though Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, their leaders are eager to spread support for their party in rural, pro-gun parts of the U.S. and have given no indication they intend to make a major push for firearm controls.

‘Anybody can get a gun’
Just more than half in the survey say they are likelier to support a presidential candidate who favors tougher gun control laws, with the bulk of that support coming from women, minorities, city residents and Northeasterners. Far more Democrats than Republicans voiced that preference, while independents were split about evenly.

“They’re too easy to get, anybody can get a gun,” said Walter Bell of Richmond, Va., who is black. “People are getting killed every day somewhere,” said Bell, 60, who owns a janitorial company.

Sympathy for the families of the Virginia Tech victims abounds, with 90 percent expressing deep sorrow for them. That is about the same as said gun violence is a serious problem.

Yet only a third said they often or even occasionally worry about becoming a gun victim themselves — underscoring yet another way in which the issue is often viewed through a highly personalized prism. Fewer than half said they wonder whether they can be safe anywhere anymore.

‘It’s happening so often now’
People were about evenly split over whether there are too many guns in the U.S.

Just over half expressed deep feelings of shame that Monday’s mass killings occurred in this country, more women than men.

“It’s happening so often now,” said Brandy Steiger, 34, of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, referring also to the 1999 slayings at Columbine High School in Colorado and last year’s killings at an Amish school in Pennsylvania. “I think people are getting used to society being a little worse.”

A bit more than half said they believe this week’s deaths could have been prevented. The shooter, 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, had been accused of stalking two women, had a history of violent writings and was found at a psychiatric hospital to be a danger to himself.

Roughly one-fifth said they know someone who has been a victim of a crime involving firearms in recent years, with women, young people, minorities, city residents and low-income people among the likeliest. Of those, almost a quarter said they have considered acquiring a gun for themselves.

About one in three people said they already have a firearm, consistent with previous polling results. Men, whites and Southerners are the likeliest to own guns.

The poll of 996 adults, conducted Tuesday through Thursday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.