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As Students Plan Another March For Gun Control, WBUR Poll Finds Widespread Support

As thousands of Massachusetts students are readying another march for gun control this Saturday, most voters stand with them.

Seventy-three percent of respondents to a new WBUR poll (topline results, crosstabs) say they support the recent student activism. Even larger majorities favor some of the reforms that many students are calling for. Those positions, if made legally binding, would expand what are already among the nation’s most comprehensive gun laws. Only 12 percent of those polled want the state to relax its gun laws.

On Wednesday, gun control advocates of all ages crammed into the House Members’ Lounge. Along with them were Massachusetts alumni of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the school that bore witness to a school shooting that killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day.

At the podium, Rep. Marjorie Decker says the nation has learned a lot in the past five weeks, mostly by following the lead of young people from Parkland — and from Massachusetts.

“Now is the time that — while we grieve — we also organize and mobilize and demand that our elected officials take action to keep us safe,” she said. “If there’s more to do, then we must do more.”

Massachusetts already has tough gun laws, and the nation’s lowest rate of deaths by firearm. “That’s not a coincidence,” Decker said.

But she also has an idea of what more state leaders can do. She’s sponsoring a bill that would allow families or law enforcement to tell a judge that someone who owns a gun might pose an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.

“The judge can then remove that gun, the ammunition, and that license for one year,” she said. “We can save lives.”

Several other states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, already have similar “red flag laws” in place, which a recent study suggests help prevent suicides.

The extreme-risk protection order, or ERPO, is one of the foremost demands of students organizing around gun violence in this state.

During walkouts last week, 17-year-old Charlotte Lowell, of Andover, used her time at a State House podium to say that students’ civil disobedience is an effort to convince older generations to come around to their point of view.

“Adults, support us. Legislators, support us … We are the future generation of voters, and we’re calling on you to take action on gun reform right now,” she said.

According to WBUR’s poll, most Massachusetts adults do support that future generation and their aims when it comes to gun control.

Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group, conducted the poll for WBUR. He says these findings represent a recent high-water mark for anti-gun sentiment in Massachusetts.

“You see a lot more people saying that they think protecting people from gun violence should get greater priority,” Koczela said.

Indeed, nearly 70 percent of respondents want lawmakers to prioritize “protecting citizens from gun violence” over “protecting [the] right to own guns.”  The poll — of more than 500 respondents — was conducted last weekend, before the latest school shooting in Maryland.

And among a series of proposed reforms, a “big three” get overwhelming bipartisan support, Koczela explained: “Universal background checks, the so-called ERPO bill, and raising the minimum age [of firearm purchases] from 18 to 21. All of those get well over 50 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents here in Massachusetts.”

Among the many supporters of taking weapons away from people deemed a risk were 80 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of respondents with a favorable view of President Trump.

It’s worth noting that versions of these policies are already in place: Police chiefs have the authority to revoke firearms licenses or confiscate weapons. And background checks are widespread in Massachusetts.

But respondents were asked about even more dramatic changes — such as a nationwide ban on semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, and a state ban on manufacturing assault weapons for sale to civilians. Each of those reforms received about two-thirds support, with pockets of disagreement concentrated mostly among Republican voters.

Koczela says the numbers are striking. Especially compared to other hot-button measures in state politics, like charter schools back in 2016.

“Even that though had like 65 or 66 percent support at its best. It was never 90. It was never 80,” Koczela said. “It also had organized, well-funded, well-defined opposition — where in this case, I’m not really sure who that would be in Massachusetts.”

The poll also finds that only about 29 percent of respondents approve of the National Rifle Association. Since they don’t have a local chapter, Massachusetts’ most prominent opposition is the NRA-affiliated Gun Owners’ Action League, or GOAL. They’re presently suing to contest the state’s 20-year-old assault weapons ban. And they’re opposed to the ERPO bill, saying that it’s redundant and will drag people’s private struggles with mental health into courtrooms.

Jim Wallace, president of GOAL, says that Massachusetts’ gun laws are already strict enough. When told that 28 percent of respondents want to see the Second Amendment repealed, he said he was disappointed — but not surprised.

“One of the problems is people associate the Second Amendment with crime – and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Wallace said. “We’re the good folks — we’re the people who are so well-vetted, it’s unbelievable sometimes how well-vetted we are,” Wallace said.

Well-publicized gun violence — like the 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary — can trigger a temporary bump in support for gun control.

But this time, Koczela says, the desire for tighter regulations seems to have spread out further, lasted longer and focused more on specific proposals — both nationwide and here in Massachusetts.

“It at least hasn’t gone back as quickly. The attention being paid to rules around guns and regulations around guns after Parkland is much more sustained,” he said.

Back at the State House, Charlotte Lowell said the news of widespread popular support for the movement was affirming, a sign that students were on the right track.

“The changes that we’re asking for should be implemented — not only because we asked for them, but because constituents believe in them as well.”

So far, the Facebook page for this Saturday’s March For Our Lives in Boston shows more than 15,000 people who plan to turn out — lots of them old enough to vote.

Erin Heim, of Somerville, is a 2008 graduate of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She spoke at the State House Wednesday and was joined by ERPO bill sponsors Rep. Marjorie Decker, left, and Rep. David Linsky, right. (Sam Doran/State House News Service)
Erin Heim, of Somerville, is a 2008 graduate of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She spoke at the State House Wednesday and was joined by ERPO bill sponsors Rep. Marjorie Decker, left, and Rep. David Linsky, right. (Sam Doran/State House News Service)

Copyright 2018 WBUR

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