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Virginians Hold Mixed Opinions on Public Safety Strategies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Wilder School Office of Research and Outreach at VCU 
August 7, 2023

The right to bear arms is highly valued by many Americans, and about 40 percent of people in the United States say that they live in a household where a gun is kept. However, a 2021 study from the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Americans see gun violence as a very big problem in their community, about half of Americans favor implementing stricter laws related to guns and that perceptions of gun violence vary by race, ethnicity, political party and community type.

The second amendment remains a key topic of elections at the state and local levels, and American policymakers and politicians often find themselves balancing the right to bear arms with ensuring public safety. In Virginia during the summer of 2018, as lawmakers were preparing to come together for a special legislative session in early 2019 to consider issues of gun safety and possession, the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll sought public perceptions of gun policies and related issues of public safety in the commonwealth.

This poll was conducted from July 10th–30th, 2018 and consisted of a representative sample of 802 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia. It had a margin of error of +/- 3.49 percentage points.

Questions included:

  • How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Law enforcement should be able to remove a person’s personal firearms for up to one year if a court hearing finds they have exhibited dangerous behaviors to self or others.
  • For localities providing security for public assemblies like protests or fairs or festivals, which should be more important?
    • Maintaining public safety, even if doing so requires restricting those assembling from bringing objects that could be used as weapons, OR
    • Maintaining the freedoms of those assembling, including bringing objects that could be used as weapons, even if doing so creates a risk to public safety?

In response to the question regarding law enforcement’s ability to remove personal firearms if a court hearing finds they have exhibited dangerous behaviors, the vast majority of Virginians agreed (60 percent said that they strongly agreed and 25 percent said that they agreed) while 13 percent disagreed (five percent somewhat and eight percent strongly).

In response to the second question, 75 percent of participants said that they felt maintaining public safety was more important, while 21 percent said that they felt maintaining the freedoms of those assembled was more important.

Later, in 2022, the Commonwealth Poll revisited the issue of gun violence. This poll was conducted from June 29th-July 9th, 2022 and consisted of a representative sample of 813 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia. It had a margin of error of +/- 5.81 percentage points. The 2022 poll also used a two-stage weighting procedure to weight the sample by the demographic characteristics of gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, Hispanic origin, region of residence and personal phone use. This time, participants were asked:

  • Which of the following statements best describes your opinion on how to address mass shootings in the U.S.?
    • An increased focus on providing mental health services to those most in need, OR
    • To tighten restrictions on who can purchase and who can own a gun.

Virginians were evenly split across the two options, with 40 percent preferring the mental health response and 43 percent preferring the gun control response. In looking at the demographic breakdowns, there was a large preference split by participants based on party identification. Democrats (65 percent), and to a lesser extent Independents (45 percent), primarily said that they supported the gun control option, while Republicans (68 percent) said that they favored the mental health response. Looking across racial demographics, Black respondents favored the gun control option (61 percent), while white respondents were split with 46 percent preferring a mental health response and 40 percent preferring a gun control response.

“It is interesting to see Black respondents favoring the gun control option in addressing mass shootings in the U.S. while white respondents are split between a mental health response and a gun control response,” said L. Douglas Wilder, the 66th governor of Virginia.

As Virginia and other states prepare for elections, and as we look ahead to the 2024 presidential election, gun ownership will continue to be a major issue for policymakers and the public. By understanding public perceptions of gun ownership and gun violence, our elected officials can better ensure that they are protecting both the constitutional rights and the physical safety of those they serve.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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