Poll: Pa. favors tougher gun laws, ban on assault weapons

Posted: February 01, 2013

HARRISBURG - Most Pennsylvania voters support stricter gun laws, including a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and universal background checks, according to a new poll.

Voters favored a nationwide ban on sales of assault weapons by 60 percent to 37 percent, and voiced nearly as strong support (59 to 39) for banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, according to the poll conducted in late January by Quinnipiac University.

"Keystone State voters, especially voters in urban areas, seem to have had enough of gun violence," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the school's Polling Institute. "By large margins, voters don't think assault weapons belong in the hands of any gun owner. Restrict the firepower of assault weapons or ban them entirely, Pennsylvanians say."

But if the numbers signal that voters are ready for tougher state laws, that is not the message legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers say they are hearing from constituents. Reacting to the poll, some were loathe to mention "gun" and "control" in the same sentence.

"Hands down, the communication I have received is, 'Don't mess with the Second Amendment rights,' " said Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery), a former police officer whose district includes gun clubs and hunting areas. "I don't think we can have a conversation about guns until we have a conversation about mental illness."

Vereb pointed out that even when Democrats controlled the state House in 2007, relatively modest gun measures - such as mandatory reporting of lost and stolen weapons, and limits of one-handgun purchase a month - failed to make it to votes on the House floor.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), whose district includes the crime-plagued city of Chester, said he was not surprised by the poll results - or by the fact that past polls had produced similar findings.

"We have to look holistically at gun violence," he said, pointing to a state Senate task force on the issue that was launched this week.

At first blush, the Quinnipiac findings may seem surprising in a state with a strong gun-owner constituency and where bills to expand hunting rights are regularly introduced in Harrisburg.

But opinions may not have changed that much: a Millersville University survey in 2000 found that Pennsylvanians favored stricter gun laws by 59 percent to 32 percent.

Political scientist G. Terry Madonna, who directs polling at Franklin and Marshall College, said that even though most Pennsylvanians appear to favor tougher laws, pro-gun legislators of both parties tend to dominate in the 253-member General Assembly.

Support of background checks for all gun buyers - a measure already required in Pennsylvania - was overwhelming in the new poll. The numbers were released just hours before a Capitol Hill hearing in Washington on the various gun measures proposed in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

Pileggi declined Wednesday to promise support for any new gun curbs, saying he would rather wait to see "how the process plays out in Washington."

"I think there has to be concern about the definition of the weapons and treating different guns differently," he said. "The majority of killings occur in cities with handguns, but those cases are not as high-profile."

The issue has been front and center in Harrisburg since the Newtown shootings, with groups on both sides holding dueling rallies on the Capitol steps. Last week, the state's largest annual outdoors show was canceled because of a boycott in response to the promoters' decision to bar sales of military-style weapons at the Saturday to Feb. 10 event.

The Quinnipiac poll nearly mirrors findings of a new national survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, which found a solid majority of Americans support an array of measures to prevent gun violence, including bans on assault weapons (69 percent) and high-capacity magazines (68 percent).

Organizations that support tougher gun laws found the numbers encouraging.

"Pennsylvanians want our elected officials to enact commonsense gun laws to keep us safe," said Shira Goodman, director of the group CeaseFirePA.

The Quinnipiac poll also found that Pennsylvania voters now favor legalizing same-sex marriage - but by a narrow margin, with 47 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.

They were divided on Gov. Corbett's expected proposal to raise the tax on gas stations to pay for road and bridge repairs, with 45 percent supporting and 47 percent opposing the $2 billion tax.

The poll surveyed 1,221 registered voters from Jan. 22 through Sunday, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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