“The folks who own weapons, the folks who own guns, they support universal background checks. The majority of them think we should not be selling assault weapons.”
– President Joe Biden, in remarks at a news conference with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, April 16
Challenged by a reporter about whether he is doing enough to stem gun violence, Biden said he was pressing ahead with legislation to deal with what he called “a national embarrassment.” He then observed that even gun owners support the gun-control measures he supports.
There’s plenty of evidence to support his first statement – universal background checks. But do most gun owners also support a ban on selling assault weapons?
Support for enhanced background checks to purchase firearms generally gets approval of 80 percent to 90 percent in public opinion polls. With those kinds of numbers, gun owners are clearly supporters.
For instance, in a 2019 Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,003 adults, 89 percent of those surveyed indicated support when asked this question: “Would you support or oppose requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers, including private sales and gun shows?”
Among households with guns, support was 88 percent. In households without guns, support was 91 percent.
Similar results can be found in a variety of surveys, and Biden thus is on solid ground to make that claim.
But in that same survey, households with guns and those without guns split over an assault weapons ban. The question was: “Would you support or oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons in this country? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?”
Among all those surveyed, 56 percent supported a ban and 41 percent opposed it. But among gun-owning households, the assault weapons ban did not receive majority support, with only 43 percent supporting it and 53 percent opposing it. By contrast, in non-gun households, 70 percent supported the ban and 27 percent opposed it.
By a margin of 37 percent to 59 percent, gun-owning households also rejected a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.
Now, it should be noted that although the margin of error in this poll was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, it would be even higher for subgroups such as gun-owning households (about 46 percent of the sample). But even so, there certainly was a sharp contrast between households with guns and without guns.
Interestingly, 32 percent of gun households strongly supported an assault weapons ban, compared with 8 percent that strongly opposed it. Forty-five percent said they “somewhat opposed” a ban, which is why the opposition ended up with a majority. So it’s clear that a substantial percentage of gun owners strongly support a ban – but not a majority, as Biden claimed.
It’s worth noting that many people are confused by the term “assault weapons.” An assault rifle, by definition, means that the weapon is fully automatic. But various proposals to ban assault weapons include a variety of semiautomatic weapons, such as the AR-15, that accept a detachable magazine and have what lawmakers define as at least one military feature. The bills generally would ban the sale, transfer, manufacturing and importation of such weapons (and high-capacity ammunition magazines) but would not require current owners to give up their weapons.
As always with opinion surveys, the design of the question makes a difference. Gallup found that asking Americans whether they are “for or against a law which would make it illegal to sell or possess assault rifles” produces a lower level of support than asking them about such actions using a specific reference to a “ban.”
We searched high and low for a survey that would show that a majority of gun owners support a ban on assault weapons. We could find only a non-probability survey that doesn’t meet Washington Post standards. The White House supplied some surveys that backed up Biden’s statement on background checks but did not provide any survey that would support his statement on assault weapons.
Numerous surveys show that a vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, support enhanced background checks. But Biden went too far in claiming that a majority of gun owners also support a ban on assault weapons. The White House could not point to a poll that supported the claim, while a recent Post poll found that a narrow majority opposed it.