Many gun owners are reluctant to express support for stricter gun control

Massive shelling has revived the gun controversy across U.S. polls, with most Americans, including gun owners, supporting some restrictions on firearms, but hesitating to speak out.

Leila Fadel, Host:

There have been shootings in eight states this weekend. At least 15 people were killed and more than 60 were injured. In places like Philadelphia and Chattanooga, Ten, there were more appeals to do something about gun violence. Polls and studies suggest that most Americans, including many gun owners, support background checks and red flag laws. But many gun owners are reluctant to open their mouths. NPR’s Alison Aubrey is looking into it. And he joins us now. Good morning.

Alison Abrey, Byline: Good morning.

Fadel: So you’re talking to gun owners in Texas. This is certainly the state where so many children were killed at school last month. Are you listening

AUBREY: Well, let me tell you about two gun owners in particular. They are neighbors, Richard Small and Gerardo Marquez. They both live on small farms south of San Antonio, not far from Ubalade. There are many similarities between them. They are both in their 60s, retired school teachers and administrators. And they both told me that they had grown up with guns. Small here and then Marquez.

Richard Small: I have a rifle that I use for peeling with my grandson. They call it plinking, you know, shooting at steel targets.

Gerardo Marquez: We hunt ducks, we hunt turkeys. So that’s what it is for me. We’re both in a country where people shoot regularly.

AUBREY: Guns are just part of their daily lives. They go to the gun show. They read hunting magazines. They both deal with their confidence as they choose to embark on their play activities.

Fadel: Yes.

AUBREY: And they’re in trouble, they say, because of easy access to assault-style rifles. And they want change, they say.

Fadel: They want change. So what does that mean? Do they support strict gun control laws?

AUBREY: They do. Richard Small said he was shocked to learn that 19 children had been shot dead and that he had actually handed over his assault-style rifle to local police. That is what the Washington Post reported. He told me he just wanted to leave it. Again, here Small, then Marquez.

Short: I had an epiphany, I finished. I don’t need In the wrong hands it is a bad, deadly combination.

Marquez: It’s very clear that we have to do something. The last two shootings, one in Buffalo, one here in Uvalade – 18 years old. I mean, alley, when will we wake up?

Aubrey: Marquez is a Democrat. The younger one is a Republican. The two of them still have multiple guns. But both support stricter background checks, more licensing requirements and red flag legislation. That is, basically, snatching guns from people who are considered dangerous by the court. Marquez says he has long been in favor of more gun control. Recent tragedies raise urgency, he says. However, none of them has so far spoken publicly about their views.

Fadel: Why not?

AUBREY: Well, one reason is that as a longtime member of the NRA – the National Rifle Association – Small says he’s surrounded by a lot of people who he says have read to promote the gun lobby.

Small: They have become almost so defensive and paranoid that the government wants to confiscate their weapons. And they are so involved with that idea. I mean, we’ve got people, these guys – I’m very embarrassed, you know? They are walking around with this AR, you know, flamboyantly, you know, in the city center, protesting. And, you know – and I like, it’s gotten out of hand, you know? It’s too crazy.

AUBREY: And Small told me, from the outside, it might seem like these guys represent most gun owners. They are certainly the most vocal and getting the most attention.

Fadel: So he thinks more gun owners like him, share his opinion?

AUBREY: Yes. He began to think that he could be part of a silent majority of gun owners who want what Marquez calls the commonsense gun law reform. Here is Marquez.

Marquez: I guess most gun owners don’t want an 18-year-old to have an AR.

AUBREY: And Small says he wants to see a new movement of people in the middle, rather than a minority-driven agenda or what he would call extremes in the NRA.

Small: I hope gun owners, you know, conscientious objectors are coming up and right – you know, guys? Lots.

Fadel: So is there any evidence that the views of these two neighbors actually reflect those of most gun owners?

AUBREY: Well, of course, there is a range of opinions. But, yes, there is some evidence. I spoke with Dr. Michael Siegel. He is a public health researcher at Tufts University. He has published research based on a survey of thousands of gun owners.

Michael Siegel: You know, our research shows that the lion’s share of gun owners, like him, support such basic laws that aim, simply, to keep guns out of the hands of people at high risk for violence. But they are afraid to speak in public.

AUBREY: Her study was published in 2020 After mass shootings, such as in Buffalo or Uvalde, support for gun control continues to grow. But he says the voices of gun owners who support stricter laws are still unheard of.

Fadel: So what do you think is the reason?

AUBREY: Well, they’re kind of stuck in the middle. They reject the location of the gun lobby. But when they look the other way, they also indulge gun advocates who say get rid of all guns. Or, you know, they don’t want to be part of the problem just because they own a firearm, says Dr. Siegel.

Siegel: It isolates them because they think they are being blamed. And so we really have to be part of the gun owners solution. And to do that, you have to respect gun culture. We must respect the fact that they have legitimate reasons to keep guns. We don’t have to agree with it, but we do have to respect it.

AUBREY: And he says it will help improve the voices of gun owners who support gun control.

Fadel: So he argues that gun control advocates will make progress if they embrace gun owners.

AUBREY: That’s basically it. I mean, the views of Richard Small and Gerardo Marquez fit the research. Gun owners believe in the right to bear arms. But they see plenty of room for compromise and lots of common ground. And if recent tragedies inspire more talk, Dr. Siegel says he thinks it will make a big difference.

Siegel: I think it’s a game changer. I think things will really start to change when gun owners come out and show their support for these laws.

AUBREY: I mean, it’s a lot of people. About one-third of adults in the United States have a gun.

Fadel: Is there any evidence that public opinion on gun control is changing overall, even with the law stuck?

AUBREY: Well, a recent Ipsos poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe there should be at least moderate regulation or prohibition on gun ownership. And although there is a biased difference, 53% of Republicans agree with moderate to strong rules. I talked to Chris Jackson of Ipsos about their results.

Chris Jackson: We’ve seen that even among Republicans, we see the majority, 78%, who are more likely to support a candidate who supports passing background checks and red flag laws to buy all new guns.

AUBREY: And researchers say that if polls show that most Americans, including many gun owners, support the new gun control system, it will be difficult for politicians to say that they are representing the interests of their people by voting against them.

Fadel: Allison Abrey of NPR. Thank you for your report.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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