Under current federal law, many persons with prior convictions for misdemeanor offenses pass criminal records background checks and legally purchase handguns.
New policy options are emerging in the debate regarding the regulation of firearms in the United States. These options include the treatment of firearms as consumer products, the design of which can be regulated for safety; denial of gun ownership to those convicted of misdemeanors; and strategies to curtail the illegal sale of guns. The public’s opinion of these innovative gun-policy options has not been thoroughly assessed.
We conducted two telephone surveys of 1200 adults each in the United States in 1996 and 1997–1998. Cognitive interviews and pretests were used in the development of the survey instruments. Potential participants were then contacted by random-digit dialing of telephone numbers.
A majority of the respondents favored safety standards for new handguns. These standards included childproofing (favored by 88 percent of respondents), personalization (devices that permit firing only by an authorized person; 71 percent), magazine safeties (devices that prevent firing after the magazine or clip is removed; 82 percent), and loaded-chamber indicators (devices that show whether the handgun is loaded; 73 percent). There was strong support for policies prohibiting persons convicted of specific misdemeanors from purchasing a firearm. Support for such prohibitions was strongest for crimes involving violence or the illegal use of a firearm (83 to 95 percent) or substance abuse (71 to 92 percent). There was also widespread support for policies designed to reduce the illegal sale of guns, such as mandatory tamper-resistant serial numbers (90 percent), a limit of one handgun purchase per customer per month (81 percent), and mandatory registration of handguns (82 percent). Even among the subgroup of respondents who were gun owners, a majority were in favor of stricter gun regulations with regard to 20 of the 22 proposals covered in the poll.
Strong public support, even among gun owners, for innovative strategies to regulate firearms suggests that these proposals warrant serious consideration by policy makers.