A majority of Americans oppose banning assault weapons for the first time in more than 20 years of ABC News/Washington Post polls, with the public expressing vast doubt that the authorities can prevent "lone wolf" terrorist attacks and a substantial sense that armed citizens can help.
Just 45 percent in this national survey favor an assault weapons ban, down 11 percentage points from an ABC/Post poll in 2013 and down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994. Fifty-three percent oppose such a ban, the most on record.
See PDF with full results here.
Indeed, while the division is a close one, Americans by 47-42 percent think that encouraging more people to carry guns legally is a better response to terrorism than enacting stricter gun control laws. Divisions across groups are vast, underscoring the nation's gulf on gun issues.
There's lopsided agreement on another concern: Just 22 percent express confidence in the government's ability to prevent lone-wolf terrorist attacks, with 77 percent skeptical about it. Confidence in the government's ability to stop a large-scale organized terrorist attack is much higher, albeit still well short of a majority -- 43 percent.
Personal fears about being victimized by a terrorist attack is not up -- it's 42 percent now, vs. 49 percent in a Gallup poll last summer. But views on the government's limitations, and on arming citizens, relate strongly to attitudes on banning assault weapons. Consider:
- Among the roughly three-quarters of Americans who doubt the government's ability to prevent a lone-wolf attack, 57 percent oppose banning assault weapons, vs. 41 percent in support. Those numbers are reversed among those who are more confident in government counterterrorism -- 56 percent favor banning such weapons, while 42 percent are opposed.
- The split is even more striking between those who see stricter gun control as the better way to fight terrorism, vs. "encouraging more people to carry guns legally." The former group divides 71-26 percent in favor of banning assault weapons. The latter group splits 22-77 percent, support-oppose.
The results of this survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, point to a shift away from the position favored by Barack Obama and others who responded to the recent attack in San Bernadino, California, by calling for stricter gun control measures. Notably, in a statistical analysis, Obama's overall job approval rating is the single strongest factor in views on an assault weapons ban.
The president's approval rating, as it happens, is not in great shape: 45 percent, down 6 points from October to match its low for the year, with 51 percent disapproving. He continues to get an even split on the economy, but 53 percent disapprove of his handling of the threat of terrorism, near his career high last month, and 59 percent disapprove of his handling specifically of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Change/GroupsThe increase in opposition to banning assault weapons since 2013 peaks in some groups -- up 18 points among strong conservatives, 17 points among higher-income earners and 16 points in the generally more liberal Northeast. But it's a broadly based trend. Many groups have moved from majority support for an assault weapons ban two years ago to majority opposition now: whites, 30- to 64-year-olds, suburbanites, political independents, moderates, residents of the West and Midwest, anyone without a post-graduate degree and those in $100,000-plus households.
These trends leave just seven basic demographic groups in which majorities still support banning assault weapons: women, Northeasterners, seniors, post-graduates, liberals, Democrats and blacks.
Differences among groups are extensive. Barely more than a third of men favor banning assault weapons, compared with more than half of women (35 percent vs. 53 percent). Seniors are most likely to favor banning assault weapons, while - despite their greater liberalism on many other issues - nearly six in 10 young adults oppose it. Opposition is high in rural areas (64 percent) and among those who lack a college degree.
And there are, naturally, sharp political and ideological divisions. Sixty-seven percent of liberals and 61 percent of Democrats favor banning assault weapons. Opposition, on the other hand, takes in 52 percent of moderates, 55 percent of independents, 69 percent of conservatives and 70 percent of Republicans. Opposition peaks, at 79 percent, among strong conservatives.
Group differences on responses to terrorism generally are similar to these, if less sharp. One that stands out is the extent of worry people have about being victimized: Those who are less worried divided evenly between favoring stricter gun control or encouraging more people to carry guns legally. Those who are most worried about being a victim of terrorism, by contrast, favor encouraging more people to carry guns, by more than a 2-1 margin.
MethodologyThis ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Dec. 10-13, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-23-34 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y. See details on the survey's methodology here.