Hard Choices

Poll: NC supports background checks, concerned about mental health

North Carolinians disagree on many of the proposals to regulate gun ownership that surfaced after recent mass shootings, but a WRAL News poll found widespread consensus that all gun buyers should have to pass a criminal background check.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolinians disagree on many of the proposals to regulate gun ownership that surfaced after recent mass shootings, but a WRAL News poll found widespread consensus that all gun buyers should have to pass a criminal background check.
More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they favored universal background checks for gun buyers, and that support was consistent across categories such as age, gender or whether someone owned a gun or not. The poll of 500 North Carolina residents was conducted by Survey USA between Jan. 9 and Jan. 12.

"That is a large consensus," said Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll who reviewed the poll results. "It's rare to get that kind of support behind anything."

The WRAL News poll also asked residents about the part mental health and violence in entertainment play in mass shootings. Among the findings:

  • 41 percent of those surveyed said that increasing security would be the most effective way to avoid future school shootings. That answer led five other options, including making access to guns more difficult and improving access to mental health care.
  • More than three-quarters of those surveyed said that the state could do more to help those with mental health problems, but only 44 percent said they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to improve the mental health system.
  • A third of all respondents said violence in entertainment, including video games, was a "major cause" of mass shootings.
Broad support for a law to require background checks on all gun purchases is consistent with national polls, such as a recent Associated Press poll that found 84 percent of adults would like to see the establishment of a federal standard for background checks for people buying guns at gun shows.

Under current federal law, those purchasing guns from federally licensed firearms dealers must pass a criminal background check or hold a permit that can stand in for such a check. In North Carolina, all those buying handguns must have a pistol purchase permit issued by their local sheriff's department.

But there is no requirement for background checks in private gun sales, when an individual is who not a federally licensed dealer sells to another individual. According to the reckoning of some pro-gun control groups, about 40 percent of gun sales in the United States take place in such private transactions, whether at gun shows or brokered through the Internet or other venues.

President Barack Obama has pushed Congress to require universal background checks for all gun buyers.

"If you want to buy a gun, whether it's from a licensed deal or a private seller, you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one. This is common sense," Obama said earlier this month when he unveiled a package of gun policies aimed at curbing gun violence and mass shootings.

While the policy is widely popular, many gun-rights groups say that background checks for private sales would unfairly impinge on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

"(A)ttempts to process private gun sales through the National Instant Check System represent nothing less than a stepping stone to national gun registration," wrote a group known as the National Coalition to Stop the Gun Ban, which is made up of state and national pro-gun groups.

National Rifle Association representatives in North Carolina referred requests for comment on this poll to the organization's national office, which did not respond.

Half of all WRAL News poll respondents said that federal laws were not strict enough, and 46 percent of those surveyed said North Carolina laws did not adequately govern gun ownership. Those findings are consistent with a recent Gallup poll, which also found dissatisfaction with the nation's gun laws.

Gun owners more resistant to restrictions

Gun owners and non-gun owners were split on several questions. For example, those who didn't own a gun favored a ban on all semiautomatic guns – firearms that automatically load the next bullet after a shot is fired – 49 percent to 34 percent. More than half of gun owners said they would oppose such a ban, although some say a more specific ban on military-style guns would be acceptable.

"I would agree on the ban of assault weapons," said Thomas Luck, 69, a retired engineer who lives just outside of Sanford. Luck, who has owned guns since childhood, said he would not mind seeing bans on AR-15s and other military-style weapons. He also said there should be limits on the amount of ammunition a firearm can hold.

"I have a semiautomatic rifle but it only holds 10 rounds," Luck said. "I don't see a homeowner needing a clip that holds 20-plus rounds."

Obama has called for limits on high-capacity magazines, which would limit how many bullets a gun can fire without being reloaded. Among those responding to the WRAL poll who do not own a gun, 67 percent say they would favor such a restriction. But among gun owners who responded to the poll, only 45 percent said they would support such limits while 44 percent said they would oppose such a measure.

There were similar splits in attitudes among gun owners and those who don't own guns on topics such as whether there should be limits on how much ammunition someone can purchase at once.

Half of all respondents surveyed said teachers should not carry guns to the classroom, 41 percent said they should be allowed.

"When my kids went to school, you could just walk right into the building," said Mary Gass, 53, of Cary. Gass doesn't own a gun but said that she has family members who do and said she would favor allowing teachers with concealed handgun permits to bring their firearms to schools. Doing so, she said, might provide an extra layer of security for teachers and students alike.

Gun owners are more likely than non gun owners to say teachers should be allowed to carry guns in the classroom, but they are split 50 percent to 42 percent on the question.

"I don't feel like that ought to be a burden a teacher has to bear," Luck said. "They have enough problems teaching the three Rs."

Regardless of Obama's push and whether or not Congress takes action on gun laws, it appears unlikely that state lawmakers are ready to dive into the gun control debate one way or the other.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, said he expected to hear conversations about laws that would allow teachers to carry firearms or posting armed guards in schools.

"I don't think I've had enough conversations with our members to be able to predict may happen in that regard," Berger said. But overall, he said, lawmakers are not likely to take up further restrictions on gun ownership, such as the universal background checks favored by poll respondents.

"I do not see this General Assembly doing anything to impair the rights, the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens in North Carolina to have access to the things that are guaranteed to them by the second amendment," Berger said.

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