NASHVILLE — Most Tennesseans believe its more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership, according to a new survey.
But while those surveyed said they value Second Amendment rights, they also think stricter rules on sales are in order to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, according to the poll from Middle Tennessee State University.
The poll also showed support for conducting criminal background checks at gun shows or in private person-to-person sales.
Two other measures — banning assault-style weapons and setting up a federal database to track all gun sales — drew considerably less support, especially among gun rights supporters.
"Tennesseans generally favor preserving access to guns, and pretty passionately so," said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU poll. "But there appears to be some common ground between gun rights supporters and gun control supporters when it comes to regulating private and gun show sales and sales to the mentally ill."
The survey, which polled 603 registered voters, was conducted Oct. 25-27. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
According to the results, most people think it is more important to protect the right to own guns (69 percent) than to control gun ownership (22.6 percent). Another 8 percent didn't know or wouldn't answer the question.
Also, 63.3 percent said gun ownership does more to protect people from becoming crime victims. Another 24.3 percent said owning guns does more to put people's safety at risk. And 12.4 percent said they didn't know or wouldn't answer.
On whether there should be laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns, the vast majority — 85.4 percent — said they favored such laws.
Asked about making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, 82.7 percent said they favored expanding background checks into those areas.
But a question about whether to ban assault-style weapons drew a far more narrowly divided response. A bare majority, 50.4 percent, favored it. But 42.4 percent opposed any such move. Another 7.2 percent said they didn't know or wouldn't answer.
There also was division over creating a "federal government database to track all gun sales," with 54.5 percent in favor and 38.3 percent opposed. Another 7.3 percent said they didn't know or wouldn't answer the question.
MTSU poll directors say in some cases attitudes run "hot" emotionally, with 92 percent of gun rights supporters saying they feel strongly about their views. Eighty-six percent of gun control supporters say they feel strongly about their's.
"Our poll represents a pretty stringent test of how acceptable these two measures might be to gun rights advocates," assistant poll director Jason Reineke said regarding the agreement between camps on mental illness and background checks at gun shows or between private sellers. "According to the Pew (Research) Center poll, only 47 percent of Americans think protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership.
"Comparing that figure to the 69 percent in our poll of Tennessee voters suggests that if these two measures can find strong general support here, they can probably find it just about anywhere," he added.
How that translates in the Tennessee General Assembly, where Republicans have super majorities and quarrel annually how far to go in expanding the ability to go armed in public, is a different matter. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville said the survey indicates "Tennesseans love their right to own a gun and that is their Second Amendment right. And we take it very seriously in this state. It also seems to illustrate to me that they want some common sense, that someone who has mental illness shouldn't be allowed to own a gun."
As to whether lawmakers would address that when they convene in January, Harwell said she wouldn't predict.
Regarding requirements for nonlicensed gun sellers to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers at gun shows or in person-to-person sales, Harwell noted the issue has come up over a large gun show at Nashville city-owned fairgrounds. The fairgrounds board is discussing new regulations on gun shows.
"I don't know if that's something they can do locally or if they have to come back to the state legislature. Since they rent that space from locals they might be able to do it through local government, I don't know," she said.
Asked if she saw any appetite in the legislature for requiring nonlicensed sellers statewide to conduct background checks, Harwell said, "I can't say that I do."
Federally licensed gun dealers do conduct background checks.
Meanwhile, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, had his own questions.
"How do you define mental illness? That's the biggest problem we've run into. Seriously," he said. "I think if you've been committed you can't get it now. So that's the biggest problem. We would all agree with that statement. But how do you define what that is and where that is?"
Regarding what Ramsey referred to as the "so-called gun-show loophole," the speaker questioned requiring someone who occasionally sells a shotgun or hunting rifle to someone having to perform a background check.
"I still think that's too much government intervention," Ramsey said. "In the end, it would require everybody to do that and I don't think it solves any problem. I don't know that there's ever been one case of anybody buying a rifle, a shotgun or even a pistol at a gun show from an individual and using it in a crime. I'd like to see some research on that.
"It sounds good," Ramsey added, "but I don't think it solves any problems."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow on twitter at AndySher1.