Poll: Utahns overwhelmingly support gun background checks
Poll • 82% back universal background checks; most reject limits on high-capacity magazines.
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Washington • Some 82 percent of Utahns support expanding background checks to cover all potential gun buyers, though most voters in the state oppose the idea of limiting high-capacity magazines, according to a newly released poll.

A survey by Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that Utahns overwhelmingly want universal background checks and to close the loopholes that don't require them for private sales or those at gun shows.

Only 17 percent of voters polled said they were against background checks for all sales.

"Out of all the different gun control measures, that's the one that is the most popular and I think [that's] because it's the least invasive," says Kelly Patterson, a BYU professor of political science. "Everybody agrees, even the most ardent gun owners, that you don't want guns in the hands of the wrong people and if you can prevent that in some way, then that's great."

Universal background checks are, indeed, popular with Americans nationwide, with nearly nine in 10 voters backing the expansion, according to news polls.

But the National Rifle Association has testified against and is lobbying against such a move, arguing that such background checks are a slippery slope into a national gun registry and, ultimately, a way for the government to confiscate weapons.

"It's aimed at registering your guns," the NRA's vice president, Wayne LaPierre, told a hunting expo crowd in Salt Lake City last month. "And when another tragic opportunity presents itself, that registry will be used to confiscate your guns."

President Barack Obama is pushing for background checks, a ban on high-capacity magazines and restrictions on assault-type rifles that can be sold.

The president has said he doesn't intend to ban handguns, or force owners to turn over their guns.

"What we're trying to do is come up with a package that protects Second Amendment rights and one that reduces gun violence," Obama said during a recent video chat with supporters.

Some 60 percent of Utahns, though, oppose a national ban on semi-automatic weapons and more than half are against limiting the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines for firearms.

"Once you get beyond that background check, Utahns are pretty wary of anything else [on gun control] because it seems as if it crosses a line with regard to existing Second Amendment rights," says Patterson, who is also a senior research fellow at the center that commissioned the poll.

"It's a Western state with a long tradition of firearms in its history and hunting as part of its culture," he adds. "It's a state, like many in the West, that's wary of federal interference."

But universal background checks stand out as the exception.

Large majorities (63 percent) of both self-described independents and Republicans support expanded background checks, and 93 percent of Democrats said they strongly favored such a move, according to the poll.

Such checks also won the approval of gun owners.

Some 57 percent of those who said they owned a gun or someone else in their household did backed more checks while 33 percent of gun owners opposed them. One in 10 voters declined to say whether they owned a firearm.

Key Research interviewed 500 registered voters Jan. 22-25 for the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.

tburr@sltrib.com