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Poll: Americans are pretty clueless about what gun laws already exist

The Week
These gun supporters may actually like the gun-control proposals Congress is considering.

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These gun supporters may actually like the gun-control proposals Congress is considering.

Most Americans erroneously think there are universal background checks for gun purchases

As Congress weighs several new proposals to tighten the nation's gun laws, recent polls have found Americans cooling to the general idea of federal action on the issue. Yet at the same time, polls have also found that large majorities of Americans support the specific reforms Congress is considering.

Now, a new survey may provide some insight into that discrepancy. It turns out that Americans aren't too familiar with what laws are already on the books, typically thinking current regulations go much farther than they actually do.

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According to the survey of registered voters, which was conducted for the Democratic National Committee, 50 percent of respondents said the government should enforce existing gun laws but pass no new ones, while 43 percent said the government should create some new restrictions as well. That's in line with a recent CBS survey that found just 47 percent of Americans want Congress to pass new gun laws.

However, the latest survey went further, asking follow-ups about specific proposals currently before Congress. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they supported universal background checks for gun purchases, while "significant majorities" said the same about banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. (The pollsters did not disclose the exact percentage of respondents who supported an assault weapons or high-capacity clip ban, and declined to do so when asked by Talking Points Memo for hard numbers.)

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Notably, even those who said they didn't want new gun laws frequently said they liked the specific proposals Congress is considering — they just erroneously assumed that those proposals were already the law of the land. Of the 50 percent who said they opposed any new gun laws, nearly half, 48 percent, said there was already a law mandating universal background checks, while another 10 percent said they had no idea if such a law existed.

"In other words, about six out of 10 people who believe we just need to do a better job of enforcing existing laws don't realize that those laws are far weaker than they think," pollsters Joel Benenson and Katie Connolly wrote in a New York Times op-ed explaining their findings. "And just under half of those who want better enforcement don't know that military-style assault weapons are, in fact, legal."

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The Senate nixed a proposed assault weapons ban weeks ago, and a push for universal background checks remains a sticking point in ongoing negotiations.

That Americans are not all that knowledgeable about existing laws could stymie efforts to craft more-stringent ones. Polls have consistently shown enormous support for some proposals — over 90 percent of respondents to a recent Quinnipiac survey said they supported universal background checks, for example — yet there is still significant opposition in Congress that could squelch reform efforts.

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"This helps explain the idea behind the ubiquitous GOP talking point that we should 'enforce existing laws before creating new ones,'" says the Washington Post's Greg Sargent. "It's based on a gamble that many people can't imagine that something as uncontroversial and sensible as universal background checks wouldn't already be required."

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