Gun Control, "Assault Weapons," and School Safety

Law enforcement officers are strong supporters of the Second Amendment and do not support measures to prohibit sales of "assault weapons" and "high-capacity" magazines to the public.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Photo: Getty ImagesPhoto: Getty Images

Immediately following the Valentine's Day murders of 17 students and staff at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, gun control advocates started calling for banning "assault weapons," limiting magazine capacity, and expanding the background checks requirements for purchasing a firearm. That has become a pretty standard response to mass shootings.

What was different this time is that some of the students of Stoneman Douglas High became media darlings with their calls for gun control actions and attacks on the National Rifle Association. They even led a virtual lynching of Florida senator Marco Rubio in a live television debate, where they painted him as being in the pocket of the NRA and accused him of murder for supporting gun rights. On hand during this sorry spectacle was Broward County (FL) Sheriff Scott Israel who supported the students' calls for more gun control.

Israel's statements at the debate could lead the press and the public to believe that cops are in favor of gun control. According to research that we have conducted here at POLICE since 2007, nothing could be further from the truth. In multiple surveys an overwhelming percentage of officers have told us they support Second Amendment rights for law-abiding Americans and do not support "assault weapon" bans.

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With gun control advocates claiming tighter gun control could make American schools safer, POLICE decided to once again query our audience about their beliefs regarding personal ownership of firearms and how they feel about "assault weapons," a rarely defined media term for semi-automatic, detachable magazine-fed rifles with pistol grips and adjustable buttstocks.

Before we get into the results, here's a word or two on methodology. The survey was sent via email to 42,682 POLICE readers. Of that total, 2,599 responded and 315 were disqualified because they indicated that they were not law enforcement officers. That gives us a total respondent population of 2,284 officers for a calculated margin of error of plus or minus 2% with a confidence level of 95%.

According to our results, gun control advocates hoping to enlist the support of law enforcement officers in the movement to ban "assault weapons" are out of luck. When asked if law-abiding Americans should be able to "buy, own, and transfer" such rifles, more than 91% of respondents said "yes."

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Support for restrictions on magazine size was a little more ambiguous. More than 31% of respondents said "yes" to magazine capacity limits. A follow-up question asked the officers what magazine capacity should be the maximum legal capacity for rifles and pistols. The most popular response was 30 rounds at 30%, followed by more than 50 rounds at 20%. About 16% of respondents to this question said there should be no limit to legal magazine capacity. One respondent said "magazine capacity limits are a useless exercise."

The legal age for buying firearms has become part of the gun control debate because the Stoneman Douglas high school shooter was able to legally buy an AR-15 variant rifle at 18. Slightly more than 50% of respondents in our survey said 18-year-olds should be legally permitted to buy firearms. About 42% of respondents would like to see 21 as the minimum age for firearm purchase.

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Expanded background checks is another issue that has been raised in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting. This measure has strong support among the readers of POLICE. More than 76% of respondents said they were in favor of expanding background checks for purchasing firearms.

The surveyed officers were split on the need for waiting periods for firearms purchases. A little more than 56% of respondents support waiting periods, while about 44% of respondents said they don't support waiting periods. Of those who support waiting periods for firearms purchases, the most popular waiting periods were three days at 21% and seven days at 15%.

Until the current uproar over "assault weapons," one of the most controversial Second Amendment issues was nationwide reciprocity of concealed carry permits. Supporters want individuals with concealed carry permits from one state to be allowed to exercise that permit in all other states. The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004 theoretically allows all working and retired officers who meet certain requirements to carry nationwide, so this question is more about civilians than officers, but nearly 89% of respondents support concealed carry permit reciprocity in all states.

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Another issue that a number of pro-gun groups wanted to push in the Trump era was the relaxation of restrictions on suppressor sales to civilians in the name of protecting shooters' hearing. Currently, civilian ownership of suppressors is illegal in several states and highly regulated at the federal level. This was another issue that split the POLICE survey respondents. Slightly more than 50% would like to see suppressor restrictions relaxed, 42% oppose, and 8% say they are not sure how they feel about the issue.

After the Oct. 1 Las Vegas mass shooting in which the gunman used a "bump stock" to increase the rate of fire of his semi-automatic rifle, there have been many calls to outlaw these devices. A majority of the survey's respondents at 59% think bump stocks should be prohibited, 30% don't want them outlawed, and 11% were not sure.

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Considering the responses to this and other POLICE surveys about gun control, it would be easy to assume that most of the respondents are NRA members. It would be easy but it would also be wrong. A slim margin of 52% of respondents are not members of the NRA.

The discussion of AR-style rifles in civilian hands led us to ask about patrol rifles at law enforcement agencies. A whopping 91% of respondents said their agencies either issue ARs or other patrol rifles or let qualified officers carry their personally owned semi-auto rifles on duty. In a follow-up question, 86% of respondents said they are qualified to carry rifles on duty.

The law enforcement response to the Parkland school shooting has led some in the law enforcement community to argue that school resource officers should have access to rifles in order to engage active shooters. The Broward Sheriff's deputy at Parkland did not have access to a rifle; we don't know if that might have made him more likely to engage the shooter. What we do know from our survey is that many SROs do have access to rifles. A total of 55% of respondents said SROs in their jurisdiction have rifles, 22% said they don't, and 23% said they did not know.

Arming teachers who are trained to engage active shooters is another school shooting response strategy that is under discussion. About 50% of respondents believe this is a good idea, 24% oppose it, and 26% say only teachers with previous military or law enforcement training should be considered for such a program.

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Perhaps the best strategy for school shooting response is to have well trained law enforcement officers ready to engage the shooter. We asked officers a number of questions about their active shooter training. Almost 40% of respondents said they had trained to counter active shooters within the last six months. Another 26% said they had been given active shooter response training within the past year. Only 4% of respondents said they have never received active shooter response training.

We also wanted to know about the quality of the active shooter response training that agencies are providing for their officers. Nearly 53% of respondents said their last active shooter training involved simulator scenarios, force-on-force drills, or full-scale exercises at schools and/or businesses.

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