A quarter cite mental health as primary cause of gun violence; residents believe background checks, increased mental health funding and banning AR-15s are most helpful in preventing mass shootings such as Uvalde

Majorities of New Jersey residents are concerned about mass shootings and want stricter gun laws, but residents are split when it comes to gun control versus Second Amendment rights, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll partnered with the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

In the aftermath of numerous mass shootings this summer, 72 percent of New Jerseyans are “very concerned” and another 20 percent are “somewhat concerned” about the amount of gun violence in the United States. Just one in 10 are “not very concerned” (5 percent) or “not concerned at all” (3 percent). Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike express high levels of concern when it comes to guns.

Fifty-nine percent of New Jerseyans think federal laws on firearm ownership should be stricter, 12 percent say federal laws should be less strict, 13 percent say they are about right and 15 percent don’t know enough about the current laws to give an opinion.

Republicans have mixed feelings on federal firearm ownership laws; 28 percent believe the laws should be stricter, 26 percent say they are about right, and 27 percent feel they should be less strict. On the other hand, eight in 10 (82 percent) Democrats and six in 10 (57 percent) independents say federal laws should be stricter.

New Jerseyans as a whole are more split, however, when it comes to weighing the importance of protecting the rights of Americans to own guns versus controlling gun ownership. While nearly half (46 percent) say controlling gun ownership is more important, three in 10 (30 percent) side with the former, and one in five say they are both equally important (21 percent).

Yet when gun control is rephrased as “policies that limit who can access certain types of firearms or require firearms to be stored in certain ways,” preference for this option slightly increases (to 50 percent), while preference for firearm-owning rights (27 percent) and the belief that both are equally important (18 percent) slightly decrease.

“New Jerseyans’ high concern over gun violence in the United States has remained relatively stable over the past decade, but residents’ once overwhelming preference for control over ownership has eroded,” said Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling (ECPIP) at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “Yet reframing the politically charged language of ‘gun control’ narrows the initially stark partisan divide and actually more than doubles the preference for limitations on gun access among Republicans.”

“The words we use in discussing these issues matter, so we need to be thoughtful in how we frame solutions and work toward a shared goal of preventing injury and death,” said Michael Anestis, associate professor in urban-global public health at the Rutgers School of Public Health and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

New Jerseyans are again split as to whether more Americans owning firearms would mean more crime: 37 percent believe there would be more crime, 27 percent believe there would be less, 28 percent feel there would be no difference, and 8 percent are unsure.

Slightly more than half (54 percent) believe there would be fewer mass shootings if it was more difficult for people to legally obtain firearms in the U.S. Thirty-five percent say there would be no difference, 7 percent say there would be more shootings, and 4 percent are unsure.

“Gun laws and gun violence are important issues for voters in the upcoming midterm elections,” Koning said. “While concern over gun violence is widespread, Democrats, women, and younger adults are all more likely than their counterparts to weigh firearm limitations and requirements as more important than firearm rights and to take negative stances on firearm-related issues, in general.”

When probed about their thoughts on the primary cause of gun violence in the nation, the most common response is something about mental health-related issues and a lack of investment in care and treatment (24 percent). Mentions of the availability and the number of firearms out there comes in second (19 percent) and firearms being in the wrong hands comes in third (7 percent). Six percent point to social issues like poverty, inequality, unemployment, and racism and five percent blame lax or weak firearm laws. Twenty-nine percent mention some other cause.

When it comes to mass school shootings, such as the incident in Uvalde, Texas, background checks for all firearm sales (64 percent “extremely helpful,” 16 percent “substantially helpful”) and more detailed background checks (55 percent, 19 percent), as well as increased funding for mental health initiatives (54 percent, 14 percent), are seen as most helpful.

New Jerseyans have similar feelings when it comes to banning assault-style weapons such as AR-15s (53 percent “extremely helpful,” 10 percent “substantially helpful”) and high-capacity magazines (49 percent, 14 percent) as well as requiring individuals to obtain a license to purchase a firearm (49 percent, 14 percent).

Residents also find each of the following helpful to some degree: increasing the age limit for purchase to 21 (37 percent “extremely helpful,” 13 percent “substantially helpful”); staffing schools with a greater number of armed security personnel (33 percent, 11 percent); requiring firearms be stored, locked and separated from ammunition (32 percent, 11 percent); increasing the number of metal detectors in schools (30 percent, 14 percent). Fewer find reducing the number of entrances at schools helpful (22 percent “extremely helpful,” 9 percent “substantially helpful”).

“We need to make sure that results from scientific studies are communicated effectively to New Jerseyans so that communities are equipped to throw their support behind policies that have been shown to work,” said Anestis.

As for what New Jerseyans don’t find helpful for preventing mass school shootings, a plurality say allowing prayer in schools (49 percent) and providing teachers and other school personnel with firearms (48 percent) wouldn’t be helpful at all.

Results are from a statewide poll of 1,018 adults contacted by live interviewers on landlines and cell phones from July 18 to July 27, 2022. The full sample has a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percentage points.

The full release is available here.