In the aftermath of a tragedy like the shootings in Aurora, Colo., the conversation inevitably turns to the question of what could have been done to prevent such senseless slaughter. Faced with irrational aggression, it's harder than ever for people -- no matter their political perspectives -- to understand the views of those with whom they disagree.
But to oversimplify the views of those across the political aisle or to misrepresent their views only deepens divides and decreases the likelihood of finding common ground and achieving real solutions.
Guns, and the laws surrounding them, will always be contentious issues -- made more so by absolutists on both sides. But what politicians, journalists and average Americans don't realize is that on many specific policies involving guns, most Americans agree far more than the oversimplified caricature of the typical gun owner suggests.
I am a perfect illustration. I come from a National Rifle Association family. My father, a mild-mannered Jewish dentist from the liberal Northeast, was nevertheless a proud, card-carrying, gun-owning member of the NRA for decades and he passed down to me a respect for the Second Amendment. In fact, I even polled for the NRA years ago. But that doesn't mean I agree with every position it takes. Neither do gun owners or even NRA members.
In 2009, Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) asked my firm to conduct a poll to see whether gun owners and NRA members (past or present) held similar views. The results unmistakably pointed to the conclusion that, contrary to the pervasive perception, gun owners -- including members of the NRA -- overwhelmingly supported a fair number of common-sense gun measures.
In May, MAIG turned to us again to dig deeper into the mindset of gun owners and measure their opinions on several specific policy measures that have been proposed nationally or in some states. We polled 945 gun owners nationwide (margin of error plus or minus 3 percent) dividing the sample evenly between non-NRA-member gun owners and gun owners who were current or lapsed members of the NRA.
Once again, we found that gun owners passionately believe in their Second Amendment rights but also think those rights can and must be balanced with public safety and national security. For example:
85 percent of gun owners agree with the statement, "Support for Second Amendment rights goes hand in hand with keeping illegal guns out of the hands of criminals." Among members of the NRA, even more agreed -- a full 87 percent.
82 percent of gun owners support requiring a criminal background check of anyone purchasing a gun.
80 percent of gun owners support requiring gun retailers to perform background checks on all employees to ensure they are not felons.
76 percent support prohibiting people on terror watch lists from purchasing guns.
80 percent also agree that concealed-carry permits should be granted only to applicants who have completed gun safety training.
78 percent think concealed-carry permits should be granted only to applicants who have not committed any violent misdemeanors, such as assault.
In most cases, NRA member support for these reforms was slightly lower than that of the gun-owner population, but in all cases, it was well above a majority. NRA members aren't extremist outliers; they are good Americans who happen to think like the rest of America.
The truth is that gun owners, including significant majorities of NRA members, prize public safety and national security. They think gun rights should be balanced with measures to protect America's citizens and communities. They think those who abuse gun laws should be punished to the maximum extent of the law.
Some conservatives will read this and think it's a sellout to advocates of gun control. Some liberals will read this and think it's a sellout to the NRA. The fact is, virtually all Americans think that with rights come responsibilities, and gun ownership is no different. Few believe in absolutes, including members of the NRA.
The debate about Second Amendment rights is complex, and it will continue long after the TV trucks leave Aurora. Yes, we are a divided nation. But when it comes to keeping illegal guns out of the hands of those who would use them for harm, Americans are much closer than they may realize.
Frank Luntz is president of Luntz Global in Alexandria.