Police chiefs say Senate caved on gun bill; new poll finds public split

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 8:14 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and his colleagues across the country slammed the U.S. Senate for having "defied the will of the American people" in voting down gun control legislation.

But a new poll suggests the public reaction was mixed to last week's defeat of a package of proposals intended to curb gun violence, including expanded background checks for gun buyers.

The Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that 39 percent of adults surveyed nationally described themselves as "very happy" or "relieved" the gun legislation failed to pass, while 47 percent said they were "disappointed" or "angry."

At the same time, another Washington Post poll, this one with ABC News, showed 86 percent support for a law requiring background checks on people purchasing weapons at gun shows or online.

That's similar to the level of support for expanding background checks identified in previous surveys, including in Utah. Both of Utah's senators voted against expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales.

Burbank, the vice president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which issued a statement this week accusing senators of "showing an unprecedented lack of courage," suggested the public needs to pay more attention.

"We have a responsibility as the voting public, that I think we take far too lightly, to be involved in our government," Burbank said. "The public needs to stand up. Public outcry is where this needs to be."

But the police chief said even though people die every day from gun violence, it often does not hit middle America until there is a mass shooting, such as the deadly assault on a Connecticut school in December.

Even then, Burbank said, the public can lose interest in the issue.

"I think we've become desensitized to this," he said. "It's kind of a scary notion."

The harsh tone of the statement from the police chiefs can help redirect attention to preventing gun violence, Burbank said, noting it's already generating interest in his position on gun control.

"That's the world in which we live," he said of the need to remind the public, "Hey, we're here. Pay attention to us. This is what we have to say."

The statement said the proposals in front of the Senate were "modest" and intended to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, but were thwarted by the gun lobby.

"Much was said about the rights of gun owners, but almost nothing was said about the equal rights of the public to be safe from gun violence," the statement said, describing senators of choosing to protect "themselves instead of the American people. That's a disgrace."

Quin Monson, head of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the perception the legislation called for broader gun control may be the reason for the disconnect in the polls between the reaction to its failure and support for background checks.

"People are in favor of the background checks, but that's where it stops," Monson said, at least in terms of strong support. He said anything seen as "comprehensive gun control legislation is likely to just stack up opponents."

The bipartisan attempt to expand background checks, seen as the centerpiece of the Obama administration's response to the Connecticut shootings, was one of a number of proposed amendments to the bill.

The poll showing what the Washington Post has labeled a "passion gap" on the issue asked respondents how they felt about "the Senate voting down new gun control legislation that included background checks on gun purchases."

A survey conducted in cooperation with the BYU center in January found that while 82 percent of Utahns favored background checks, a majority opposed other measures, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, that type of ban was supported nationally, 56-42.

"I don't see evidence of a big shift of opinion," Monson said of the Washington Post findings. "I think it's interesting. I think they've uncovered this sort of lack of passion, as they call it."

He noted the Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 60 percent of respondents could still vote for a candidate if they disagreed on the issue of gun control but agreed on other issues.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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