New TIME/CNN Poll: White House Gun Agenda Faces Conflicted Public

Many of the pillars of Obama's plan are popular, but much of the public isn't convinced tighter gun laws will work.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House in Washington, Jan. 16, 2013.

A majority of Americans favor tighter gun laws, but the White House efforts to enact a new package of regulations will have to overcome political resistance and voters’ ambivalence about the causes of gun violence, according to the results of a new TIME/CNN/ORC poll.

The new survey shows why the White House’s fight is daunting: the gun debate is muddled. Many of the pillars of Obama’s plan are popular, but less so than in the past, despite the searing mass-shooting in December that drove the President’s new push. And while the media widely criticized the NRA’s absolutist stance in the wake of the Newtown massacre, a plurality of the public agrees with the organization’s positions, and believes that the best way to curb rampant gun violence is to station an armed guard in every school, as the NRA suggested.

In its push to move the most aggressive gun-control push in a generation through a bitterly split Congress, the White House also must persuade a public that isn’t convinced the main reason for America’s epidemic of violence is the availability of guns. Just 23% of respondents in TIME’s poll called the availability of guns the primary cause of gun violence, compared with 37% who pointed to parenting and another 37% who cited the influence of popular culture.

While 56% of respondents in the new poll said existing gun laws were too lax and 55% of respondents backed tighter restrictions, those numbers have dwindled from earlier highs. In a similar TIME/CNN poll from Dec. 1993 — taken just after Bill Clinton signed a new law imposing background checks on gun buyers — 70% of respondents backed new gun regulations. In that same 1993 poll, roughly half of respondents said tighter restrictions would reduce violence. In the new TIME/CNN poll, just 39% said tougher gun laws would stem the tide of gun violence sweeping the U.S., compared to 61% who disagreed.

Another challenge for the White House is that opponents of gun control are somewhat more ardent about the issue than Americans who support stricter gun laws. Just 19% of overall respondents said they would only vote for a representative who shares their views on guns, compared to 62% who said it was among the many issues that would inform their vote. But the figure was somewhat higher among self-identified Republicans (22%) and conservatives (24%). Fifty-three percent of gun owners, including 72% of Republicans, say they feel the federal government is trying to take away their right to own a gun, despite Obama’s inaction on gun control in his first term and the White House’s continued insistence that its proposals will not infringe on Second Amendment rights. The prospect of a ballot-box rebellion from furious gun owners could weigh on the minds of the moderate Democrats Obama will need to muscle his package through Congress.

Part of the gun lobby’s momentum is due to the NRA, which remains broadly popular despite the media’s mockery of the organization’s response to the Newtown shooting. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they agreed with the NRA’s position on guns, compared to 42% who disagreed. The organization’s proposal to install armed guards in every U.S. school was panned in the press as unrealistic and prohibitively expensive, but 54% of respondents support it and 47% said the idea would do more to prevent gun violence than new gun control laws. The White House task force led by Vice President Joe Biden partially adopted this plank, advocating for 1,000 new “school resource officers,” including specially trained police officers, as a deterrent to student violence.

Major individual components of the White House agenda boast board popular support, including tougher background checks, an assault-weapons ban, better registration databases and ammunition limits. Eighty-seven percent of Americans (and 87% of Republicans) favor background checks at gun shows, a major loophole in the current law; another 75% support checks on sales by non-licensed dealers. A solid majority support the bans on assault weapons (56% overall, and 53% of self-described independents) and high-capacity clips (56%), as well as requiring gun owners to register their weapons with local government (69%).

These numbers support the White House’s contention that the public is receptive to reasonable measures designed to stop the scourge of gun violence. But the poll is also a reminder that gun control, always among the most fraught topics in U.S. politics, will be particularly tricky to get through a polarized Congress over the objections of powerful foes.

The poll, conducted by ORC International, surveyed 814 adult Americans (556 by landline phone and 248 by cell phone) on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.