Poll: A majority of Americans support universal background checks, gun licensing and an assault weapons ban

Over half of both Second Amendment supporters and Republicans favor universal background checks and gun licensing provisions

A person with a gun at a protest.
A man wears a gun to a protest outside of the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s latest Mood of the Nation Poll, conducted from May 12-18, 2023, finds that 86 percent of American adults support U.S. Congress mandating background checks for all firearm sales and transfers.

Nearly three-quarters support Congress requiring gun owners to take a test, obtain a license and register their firearms, similar to the process of owning an automobile.

A bipartisan majority of Americans supported two of those policies: universal background checks and gun licensing. An assault weapons ban also received majority support, but support and opposition were far more partisan. Nearly half of Americans support eliminating current gun laws and protecting the Second Amendment, also split along party lines.

Partisan agreement on background checks and licensing

Support for universal background checks and gun licensing is bipartisan. Over 90 percent of Democrats support both provisions, as do a majority of Republicans. Eighty percent of Republicans support universal background checks and 54 percent support gun licensing.

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The other two provisions are split by party: An overwhelming majority of Democrats (90 percent) support a congressional ban on assault weapons, while a majority of Republicans (59 percent) oppose it. On the other hand, a majority of Republicans (54 percent) support eliminating most current gun laws to protect Second Amendment rights, while two-thirds of Democrats are opposed.

Second Amendment supporters’ views on gun policies

It is noteworthy that the three firearm-restricting provisions included in this poll are supported by a majority of those who support eliminating “most current gun laws in order to protect Second Amendment rights.” Among these Second Amendment advocates, 77 percent support universal background checks, 60 percent support a testing, licensing and registering process for guns similar to that of automobiles, and 52 percent support an assault weapons ban.

Increase in Second Amendment support

The firearm-related questions included in this poll were replicated from a 2019 Mood of the Nation Poll. Factoring in the margin of error associated with each survey (±4.3 percentage points in 2019 and ±3.6 percentage points in 2023), the overall level of support for the three gun-restricting measures is unchanged.

There is, however, a statistically significant 10 percentage point increase in overall support for “eliminating most current gun laws in order to protect Second Amendment rights.”

Since 2019, the annual number of firearm suicides, homicides and mass shootings have all increased. Nevertheless, support for three popular reforms is virtually unchanged.

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In their own words

When asked to explain their support for gun policies, survey respondents’ answers were wide-ranging. Using a coding rubric developed by the McCourtney Institute following the 2019 poll that used the same questions, it was apparent that responses indicating general support for gun control measure, with some implying that support and others explicitly using those words. For example:

“Gun control is a must! We fear the future of our kids with all of these shootings!” – 37-year-old white woman from California.

It was not surprising that this was a common theme among those who had indicated support for the three gun control measures included in the poll. Conversely, Somewhat surprising is that nine percent of those who were asked about their support for eliminating most current gun laws also indicated a “pro-gun control” reason for their support of that provision.

The second most common reason given for supporting a specific gun policy was that it would help to keep guns out of the wrong hands. This reasoning was provided by most of those asked to explain their support for universal background checks. Some examples include:

“Currently too many guns in the hands of irresponsible and sometimes dangerous people” – 75-year-old white woman from Michigan.

“It would help somewhat in helping to identify those people that should never own a gun due to mental health issues, those with criminal histories, or are too young to legally own a gun.” – 72-year-old Hispanic woman from Texas.

Those who were asked why they supported “require gun owners to take a test, get a license, and register their firearms just like they do for their automobiles” commonly referred back to the premise of the policy in question, indicated that they supported one or more aspect of the measure. For example:

“In order to know if they are qualified to carry [a gun] or not” – 33-year-old Black man from Texas.

“Many things are and should be heavily regulated: healthcare, cars, occupations, travel- and all of those things are less dangerous than guns. License and registration isn’t an undue burden.” – 32-year-old white woman from Illinois.

About one-third of those who were asked to explain their support for an assault weapons ban provided a response that referred to semi-automatic or assault rifles, and about one-quarter specifically noted that these types of firearms are “weapons of war” meant only for combat:

“There is no real reason to own assault weapons unless you plan on killing people.” – 50-year-old Black man from Louisiana.

“No one needs an assault weapon. That’s for the armed service.” – 69-year-old Black man from Virginia.

Second Amendment supporters

Perhaps it is not surprising that the most common reasoning given by those who were asked to explain their support for “eliminating most current gun laws in order to protect Second Amendment rights” was support for the Second Amendment. Examples of those responses, given by half of those supporting doing away with most gun laws, include:

“There shouldn't be any gun laws to begin with because it is a constitutional right to bear arms.” – 61-year-old Black woman from New York.

“All restrictions are a violation of the Second Amendment. As a rights maximalist I do not believe the government has the authority to regulate arms.” – 39-year-old white man from Colorado.

Additionally, 20 percent of those asked to explain their support for doing away with most current gun laws indicated that gun laws do not work. For example:

“The vast majority of guns laws are modern creations. Gun laws fail to deter or reduce crime while substantially burdening law-abiding citizens.” – 67-year-old white man from California.

“The 2nd amendment is one of few protections against government tyranny. It is also a guarantee of the ability to defend yourself, one of the most basic freedoms there is. Limiting these rights can only be intended to make it impossible for people to resist their rights being violated.” 37-year-old white man from Iowa.

Another set of explanations for supporting the elimination of most current gun laws had to do with the personal protection and safety that unfettered gun ownership affords:

“If the Second Amendment doesn't stand, then good honest people will have no way of protecting their homes and family and only criminals will have guns.” – 78-year-old white woman from Oklahoma.

While the answers given by Second Amendment supporters may seem contradictory, this is not necessarily the case. Arif Memovic, a doctoral student at Penn State University, noted that “most Second Amendment supporters support responsible gun ownership, and many believe that gun control advocates are ignorant about guns and gun culture.” That would be consistent with licensing that encourages education while also being wary about other gun control policies.

Find a detailed report on the survey’s findings and methodology at the APM Research Lab website.