Support for Background Checks Continues in States Where Senators Voted “No”


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The U.S. Senate failed to pass expanded background checks despite support from 81 percent of voters nationally [1]. Since then, public polling has documented the fall-out for many senators who cast no votes. Five new surveys in states represented by senators who voted against S649 also show huge public support for background checks, even in gun friendly states like Alaska and North Dakota. But this research goes further than that. It also shows, despite their previous vote, voters strongly supporting their U.S. Senator changing his or her mind. This research shows a path for these Senators to arrive at a different conclusion on background checks.

The following findings are from 5 surveys conducted in Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. All are registered voters, except for North Dakota where the sample is of voters who have participated in an election in the last three years. The New Hampshire survey was conducted May 21-23; all others were from May 28 to June 3, 2013.Margin of error is +/- 4 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

Alaska: The Background Check Exception

Despite mixed views on gun laws in general, Alaska voters make an exception for background checks. A majority of Alaska voters oppose making gun laws "stronger," most (45 percent) would simply keep them as they are now. Despite this sentiment, an impressive majority (72 percent favor, just 25 percent oppose) support background checks on all gun sales,including those sold on the Internet and at gun shows. This majority includes gun owners (751 Pew Research Center, May 1-5, 2013. percent favor), Republicans (59 percent), NRA households (56 percent) and voters in rural partsof the state (57 percent). The key to the Alaska politics, of course, is the huge independent andn on affiliated vote. Seventy-two percent of independents support background checks, as do 75 percent of unaffiliated voters.

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Alaska voters also believe it is possible to protect the rights of Americans to own firearms andstrengthen laws to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people at the same time. A 72percent majority of gun owners believe laws are not necessarily hostile to the SecondAmendment; this is how they can make an exception for background checks.

While most voters (72 percent) do not know how Senator Begich voted on background checks,once told, a majority of voters want him to take the significant step of switching his vote. In astatement pair exercise, voters heard two statements: one focused on how Begich shouldchange his vote if background checks came up in the Senate again, the other strongly arguedthat Begich should stick to his initial vote. A 51 percent majority of voters, including a majority ofboth gun owners and independent voters, believe Begich should switch his vote and supportbackground checks.

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A third of voters (33 percent) report they would be more likely to support Begich if he supported background checks, 20 percent would be less likely. A plurality, 46 percent, says it will make nodifference in their vote, including 54 percent of Republicans.

Arizona: Broad Consensus on Guns

Voters want background checks. Arizona voters unequivocally support background checks.Support crosses party lines, gender, age, race, and every other subgroup. Eighty-one percent ofvoters favor requiring background checks on all gun sales including those sold on the internetand at gun shows. This includes 90 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Republicans (and 66percent of Republican primary voters), and 83 percent of independents. Anglos (81 percent) andHispanics (85 percent) support background checks, as do gun owners (78 percent) and NRAhouseholds (54 percent).

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Voters in Arizona also do not see support for background checks as inconsistent with gun rights because they do not regard any regulation on firearms as an attack on the 2nd Amendment. Almost three-fourths (72 percent) believe it is possible to protect the rights of Americans to own guns while also strengthening laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands. This includes 67 percent of gun owners, 62 percent of NRA households, and 66 percent of Republicans.

Only 43 percent know how Senator Flake voted on background checks. The fact that a majorityof voters do not know how he voted is fortunate for him. Among all voters, 45 percent are lesslikely to support Flake after learning he voted against background checks; only 15 percent aremore likely. Among independents, 37 percent are less likely to support him; only 14 percent aremore likely. Among women, the split is 52-12 percent.

Voters are very open to Senator Flake changing his mind. In a statement pair exercise, votersheard two statements: one focused on how Flake should change his vote if background checkscame up in the Senate again, the other strongly argued that Flake should stick to his vote andnot change his mind. By 31 point margin (61-30 percent), voters overwhelmingly believe thatFlake should switch his vote. The choice produced similar results in many key groups: 58-36percent with gun owners, 58-30 percent among independent voters, 65-27 percent withindependent women, and 62-27 in the Phoenix suburbs.

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Voters (32 percent) are more likely to support Flake if he switches his votes; only 15 percent are less likely. Independents and gun owners are more likely than not to support Flake if heswitches, with 24 percent of independents and 28 percent of gun owners more likely to supporthim. Almost half, 47 percent, of Republicans say that if Flake supported background checksnow, it would make no difference on their vote. More Republicans (28 percent), say a changedvote would make them more likely to support Flake than less likely (22 percent).

Nevada: Bi-partisan Consensus on Guns

Support for background checks is unambiguous. Like most western states, voters here areno strangers to guns. At least 40 percent own a firearm. However, 84 percent support requiringbackground checks on all gun sales, including those sold on the internet. A 68 percent majoritystrongly endorse this step. Background checks find support among Democrats (92 percent), aswell as Republicans (75 percent favor), gun owners (83 percent) and non-gun owners (88percent), NRA households (69 percent) and non-NRA households (87 percent), Anglo voters(83 percent) and Hispanic voters (86 percent). Among the swing voters who decide politicaloutcomes in this state, background checks are overwhelmingly supported: 80 percent amongindependent voters, 83 percent among unaffiliated voters, 86 percent among independentwomen, 81 percent among voters currently undecided in the race for U.S. Senator.

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Only 20 percent of Nevada voters know how Senator Heller voted on the Senate bill expanding background checks. Seven percent mistakenly believe he voted in favor of background checksand 73 percent admit they do not know. Voters' current unawareness of his record on this issue buys him a temporary reprieve and arguably some latitude in future votes. When all voters learnHeller voted against background checks, 40 percent pronounce they are less likely to supporthim, including 26 percent who are much less likely to support him. Just 18 percent are morelikely. His current position does not buy him credibility among gun owners (36 percent lesslikely, 22 percent more likely).

Nevada voters strongly want Senator Heller to change his mind and vote for backgroundchecks. Voters heard two statements: one focused on the reasons Heller should supportexpanded background checks the next time it was up for a vote and one that strongly urged himto continue to oppose background checks. By better than a 2:1 margin, voters urge him toswitch his vote (64 to 31 percent). Gun owners differ little on this measure (62 percent want himto vote for background checks) and even a plurality of Republicans lobby for a different position(48 percent should switch his vote, 45 percent should not switch his vote).

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A 37 percent plurality report being more likely to support Heller if he switched his vote, just 17 percent are less likely. This switch could benefit him among gun owners (34 percent more likely,18 percent less likely), as well as among swing voters (34 percent more likely, 18 percent less likely among non-affiliated voters), but without causing him real problems with Republican base voters (27 percent more likely, 26 percent less likely).

New Hampshire: Broad Support Across Party Lines for Background Checks

Voters in New Hampshire are not anti-gun, but 84 percent support background checks.Of this 84 percent, 69 percent "strongly" favor background checks on all gun sales, includingthose sold on the internet and at gun shows. This support crosses party lines and is notdependent on gun ownership. Background checks are supported by Democrats (93 percent),Republicans (79 percent), independents (81 percent), Republican Primary voters (70 percent),gun owners (82 percent) and NRA households (60 percent). Women are particularly supportive,ith 89 percent favoring background checks (84 percent of independent women, 83 percent ofRepublican women).

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But, New Hampshire voters are not hostile to guns. At least 37 percent of Granite Staters own agun. However, they do not necessarily believe that strengthening gun laws infringe on 2nd Amendment Rights. Three quarters of voters believe that it is possible to "protect the rights ofgun owners" and "strengthen laws to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people" at thesame time. This is true for gun owners, NRA households, independents, Republicans, and Republican primary voters as well.

The media attention surrounding the background check vote in Congress has created aninformed electorate. Seventy-one percent have seen, heard, or read "a lot" or "a fair amount"about background checks recently. More important, voters know how Ayotte voted: 62 percentknow she voted against expanding background checks, while only a third are unsure.New Hampshire: Broad Support Across Party Lines forBackground Checks

Forty-four percent are less likely to vote for her because of her opposition (35 percent much lesslikely); only 18 percent are more likely to support the Senator. Among independent voters, 43 percent are less likely to support her (20 percent more likely), and among gun owners, 40 percent are less likely (21 percent more likely).

A convincing majority of voters want Senator Ayotte to change her mind and supportbackground checks. Voters were read two statements: one that focused on the reasons Ayotteshould support expanded background checks the next time it was up for a vote and one thatstrongly urged her to continue to oppose background checks. Fifty-seven percent think sheshould change her vote, including 57 percent of independents, 56 percent of gun owners, andeven 39 percent of Republicans.

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Voters (31 percent) are more likely to support Senator Ayotte if she changes her mind and supports background checks; only 11 percent are less likely. There would be very little chanceof blowback: 55 percent say a switch would make no difference in how they feel about Ayotte.Among gun owners, 62 percent say the Senator's changed vote will make no difference on their decision to support her, while a quarter say they would be more likely to support her. Only 10percent of Republicans and even only 26 percent of NRA households would be less likely tosupport Senator Ayotte if she supported background checks.

North Dakota: Background Checks Consistent with Values

At least 53 percent report owning at least one firearm (13 percent refused the question).Seventy-six percent of gun owners hunt; half use their guns for target practice. Guns areingrained in North Dakota's culture and voters here are understandably protective of their rights.But there is still strong and broad support for background checks. An impressive 79 percentmajority support background checks on all gun sales, including those sold on the internet and atgun shows, with 58 percent strongly supporting expanded checks. Support crosses party lines,with 93 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of  Republicans, and 75 percent of independentvoters. Eighty percent of gun owners favor background checks as well as 56 percent of NRAhouseholds.

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North Dakotans support background checks despite their affection for guns because they understand that not every regulation on firearms is an attack on 2nd Amendment rights. Morethan two-thirds (69 percent) believe that it is possible to protect the rights of Americans to ownguns and strengthen laws to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people at the same time.Nearly 70 percent do not know that Senator Heitkamp voted against expanding backgroundchecks. When told, nearly half (49 percent) want her to switch her vote. In a statement pairexercise, voters heard two statements: one focused on how Heitkamp should change her vote ifbackground checks came up in the Senate again, the other strongly argued that Heitkampshould stick to her initial vote. A 49 percent plurality of voters, including gun owners andindependent voters, believe Heitkamp should switch her vote and support background checks.

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There is little risk of blow back if Heitkamp changed her position on background checks. If theSenator "changed her mind" and voted for background checks, 52 percent say it would make nodifference in their support for or against her. This is true for 52 percent of gun owners, 59percent of Republicans, 49 percent of independents. In fact, more would be more likely to votefor her (27 percent) than less likely (20 percent).


[1] Pew Research Center, May 1-5, 2013