Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - An "activism gap" between gun rights supporters and those who back stricter limits helps explain why gun control legislation has proved so difficult to enact, even in the wake of public outrage over shooting rampages.
A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds Americans by 51%-45% say it's more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right of Americans to own guns.
But those concerned about gun rights are much more likely to place a priority on the issue and be politically active about it. Nearly one in four have contributed to a group that takes a position on gun policy, for instance, compared with 5% of those who say it's more important to control guns. Gun rights advocates are nearly twice as likely to have contacted a public official to express an opinion about gun policy, 15%-8%.
The phone survey of 1,502 adults, taken Jan. 9-13, shows broad and bipartisan consensus in support of two particular proposals:
Making background checks on gun buyers universal, including at gun shows and in private sales, is backed by 85% of Americans, including about equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
Preventing people with mental illness from buying guns is backed by 80%, including 86% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats.
Both ideas are supported by close to nine in 10 gun owners, who make up about a third of those surveyed.
On other proposals, there are sharp partisan splits. Two-thirds endorse creating a federal database to track gun sales, but Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to back the idea. A ban on assault-style weapons is supported by 84% of Democrats but 44% of Republicans.
"My starting point is not to worry about the politics," President Obama said at a news conference Monday when asked about gun control one month after 20 children and six educators were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. "My starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works, what should we be doing to make sure that our children are safe and that we're reducing the incidence of gun violence."
He said, "If in fact - and I believe this is true - everybody across party lines was as deeply moved and saddened as I was by what happened in Newtown, then we're going to have to vote based on what we think is best. We're going to have to come up with answers that set politics aside. And that's what I expect Congress to do."
What about the National Rifle Association's proposal to protect children by arming more adults in schools?
By 2-1, 64%-32%, those surveyed support the idea of using more armed security guards and police officers. A solid majority, 57%-40%, oppose arming more teachers. On that issue, the partisan divide is particularly stark: 56% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats say it's a good idea.
On some issues involving guns, men and women have different views. Two-thirds of women but fewer than half of men support an assault weapons ban. Nearly half of men but just a third of women endorse arming teachers with guns in schools.
The poll's margin of error is +/-2.9 percentage points.