A Closer Look by the ECPIP Staff … New Jerseyans and Gun Control

New Jerseyans’ Attitudes on Gun Control and Gun Violence

By Gabriela Perez and Jingying Zeng

Gabriela Perez, a senior at Rutgers University, and Jingying Zeng, a junior at Rutgers University, are data visualization interns at the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

These data come from a three-state study by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll that was in the field from February 22-27, 2014 done in conjunction with two other statewide academic polling centers – Siena Research Institute in New York and Roanoke’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research in Virginia. We fielded a large set of the same questions to respondents in our respective states and have previously released the state-by-state results. This blog post takes a closer look at the New Jersey-specific data and the differences that emerge within New Jersey itself for some of the questions we asked in this study.

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After a second tragic shooting at Fort Hood last week, the issue of gun violence has undoubtedly been back in the spotlight. Back at the end of February, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll once again asked New Jerseyans about gun control and causes of mass shootings. While these numbers were asked a few weeks prior to this most recent tragedy, they are still extremely relevant now and show both where New Jerseyans agree and differ regarding gun control and what is most responsible for mass shootings.

Three-quarters of New Jerseyans say they are in favor of establishing a national gun registry – no surprise given the attitudes of residents in recent years has been overwhelmingly in favor of increased gun control. Two-thirds of those who possess guns in their household support the national gun registry, compared to three-quarters of those in non gun-owning households. Interestingly, there is not as much partisan division on this question in New Jersey as we might expect; a majority of partisans of all stripes support the measure: 78 percent of Democrats favor the registry, as do 71 percent of Independents and 67 percent of Republicans.

The perceived benefits of stricter gun laws are a different story, however. Among New Jerseyans overall, residents are split as to whether stricter laws make people more safe or whether they make no difference at all: 44 percent say the former, while 41 percent say the latter, and just 14 percent say stricter laws make them less safe. Perceptions on this have not changed a great deal despite numerous shootings throughout the past year: a February 2013 Rutgers-Eagleton Poll similarly showed that 47 percent of residents claimed they believe that stricter gun laws would reduce violence.

These opinions furthermore vary greatly by partisanship. Just over half of Democrats feel that stricter gun laws would make them “more safe,” and 41 percent say no difference. Just 27 percent of Republicans say such laws would make them safer, on the other hand; they are instead more likely than other partisans to say that stricter gun laws would make them less safe (at 23 percent) and most likely to say the laws would make no difference. Independents are closer to Democrats in their belief about greater safety: 45 percent say stricter laws would make them “more safe.”

Attitudes on safety also vary by gun ownership. Almost half of those in households with a gun say stricter laws would make no difference, while the rest are split between whether such laws would make things more or less safe. Those in households that do not own a gun are instead much more likely to say these laws would make them feel more safe (at 48 percent); another four in ten of these respondents say no difference, and just 9 percent say less safe.

When asked to choose what factor has been most responsible for mass shootings, New Jerseyans are mostly in agreement. Overall, residents are most likely to say that poor policies dealing with mental illness takes the top spot. Over a third mention this as most responsible for mass shootings, while another one in five more grimly believe the fact that we simply cannot stop those who want to kill others is most responsible. Another 16 percent blame weak gun laws, while about one in ten blame violent media (such as movies and video games) and the poor enforcement of gun laws. While all partisans are most likely to mention dealing with mental illness, Democrats are next most likely to mention weak gun laws, while both Independents and Republicans are next most likely to say our inability to stop those who want to kill is most responsible.

All in all, it seems opinions on gun control in New Jersey continue to reflect a desire for more protective gun measures like the national gun registry – despite New Jersey already having some of the toughest gun laws in the nation – yet residents are split as to whether or not such stringency actually works. New Jerseyans moreover mostly attribute the violence itself not wholly to weak gun laws but rather more so to poor handling of mental illness. This focus on mental illness coalesces with Gov. Christie’s stance on the topic, who has pushed for mental health reform as a primary way to combat gun violence. It also parallels current conversation around this new Fort Hood shooting, which has concentrated on the shooter’s mental health issues. As more unfolds about this latest tragedy, mental illness policies and reform may now play a bigger role than ever before in the fight against gun violence.

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