AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Since the shootings in Newtown, there's been talk of shifting attitudes toward gun control. Today, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a new survey on public attitudes. A key finding: There is broad bipartisan support for some gun control policies but also a partisan divide over others. For more, we're joined by Pew Director Michael Dimock. Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Hi.
CORNISH: So tell us a little bit about the areas where people did agree.
DIMOCK: Yeah. Well, gun control is typically a divisive issue, but there are some ideas that get very broad support. The poll that we just finished found 85 percent in favor of expanding background checks to include private and gun show sales. And that crossed party lines, a very broad level of support. The same was true in terms of establishing stricter laws to prevent people with mental illnesses from being able to purchase guns. 80 percent, and again across party lines, favor that idea, so not all laws or proposals are equally divisive right now.
CORNISH: So where does that bipartisan support actually breakdown with proposals?
DIMOCK: On pretty much everything else. You see broad support, for example, for a federal database to track gun sales. 67 percent overall favor this. That's widely supported by Democrats, 84 percent. But among Republicans, you get fewer than half who would favor a federal government database on guns.
CORNISH: And then looking at another proposal related to schools, for instance, increasing security, armed or otherwise, where was the public support on that?
DIMOCK: It's an interesting issue. If it's about having armed security or police in schools, you get about two-thirds in support of that. The other option of having teachers and school officials carry arms is far less popular. Only 40 percent favor that. A majority are opposed to that idea. And there is very strong opposition from some groups, Democrats, women and some other groups about that idea.
CORNISH: Now, you're survey also looked at how gun owners themselves view gun policy. Were there any surprises there?
DIMOCK: I think it might surprise some that gun owners are not uniformly against any kind of gun control. I think there's a misperception perhaps that gun owners don't want to see any infringements on the rights to own guns. But you don't see that. You see a slim majority of gun owners who support the idea of a federal database to track gun sales. You see some support, about half, for assault weapons bans even among gun owners. So it's not that all gun owners see guns as a black-and-white issue.
CORNISH: Of course, major legislation getting through Congress is going to rely on public opinion but the survey found some interesting things about how active people are on one side or another when it comes to kind of engaging their congressmen or trying to do some advocacy, right?
DIMOCK: Yes, yes. The political activity on this is very different among those who support gun rights and those who support gun control. Gun rights advocates tend to be much more engaged. 23 percent of people who favor gun rights say that they've contributed money to a group about that issue. Only 5 percent of gun control advocates have done the same. 15 percent of gun rights advocates say they've contacted an elected official to address the issue. That's twice the number as you have among gun control supporters. So you see a big gap in the level of activism on this issue, and that is a big factor in driving who the politicians are listening to.
CORNISH: Now, how much of a shift did you see in kind of overall attitudes since Pew last surveyed this topic or even going further back?
DIMOCK: Yeah. The evolution of attitudes on guns have been very interesting. We saw a modest shift in the direction of gun control following the shootings in Newtown in December, the poll that we did the week after those shootings. But it wasn't overwhelming. And in fact, even at the time, at that dramatic moment, you had fewer saying that gun control should be our priority than what's the case even five or six years ago when we had as many as 60 percent saying gun control should be our priority.
The current poll, now a month after the Newtown shootings, doesn't really see any shift in opinion from right after the shootings. You have a slim plurality saying that gun control should be our focus with the remainder saying that protecting gun rights should be our focus. But over the long course of history, you see a lot more support for gun control in past periods. When Bill Clinton was president and passed an assault weapons ban, you had margins close to 2-1 saying that gun control, not gun rights should be the priority. So we're in a much tighter division of opinion today than we've been at in previous periods.
CORNISH: Michael Dimock is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Michael, thank you for speaking with me.
DIMOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.