PRINCETON, NJ -- A solid majority of the U.S. public, 73%, believes the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the rights of Americans to own guns. Twenty percent believe the amendment only guarantees the rights of state militia members to own guns.
The Supreme Court will soon weigh in on this issue, after recently hearing the arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Washington, D.C., ban on handgun ownership by city residents is facing a Second Amendment challenge.
The precise language of the Second Amendment reads:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The often fierce debate over the Second Amendment has centered on whether it was intended to protect the rights of all Americans to own guns, or only those who are members of state militia groups.
The poll makes it clear which side Americans come down on. Gun owners (roughly one-third of the U.S. adult population) are nearly universal in endorsing the view that the Second Amendment guarantees their right to own guns. Non-owners are less likely to view the amendment this way, but a majority still do.
While the American public backs the view that gun ownership is a constitutional right, Americans favor having legal restrictions on it. In the same poll, 49% favor stricter gun laws than exist now and 38% would like to see gun laws remain as they are. Just 11% advocate gun laws that are less strict.
The practical outcome of the case will be whether the Washington, D.C., handgun ban will be allowed to stand. In general, the public opposes sweeping bans on handguns. In the most recent Gallup Crime Poll, conducted last October, Americans opposed a law that would ban possession of handguns except by police and other authorized persons by 68% to 30%.
The Second Amendment case may well be the most significant Supreme Court ruling this year and arguably the most significant one in Court history on gun ownership. Reports suggest the Court was sympathetic to the notion that the Second Amendment does confer a right to own guns on Americans during the oral arguments in the case, in line with what most Americans think. While the Supreme Court is not supposed to be swayed by public opinion, Americans appear inclined to react favorably to a ruling that affirms the right to own guns and unfavorably to one that does not.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,016 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 8-10, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 373 gun owners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 630 gun non-owners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.