2017 Homicides in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge residents increasingly do not feel safe in their own neighborhoods and are generally supportive of several gun restrictions, according to a survey published by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Following a bloody 2017 in which more than 100 people were murdered in East Baton Rouge Parish, 43 percent of survey respondents said they didn’t feel safe walking around their own neighborhoods at night, an increase of 11 percentage points since 2016.

Sixty-two percent are more concerned that they or a family member will be the victim of a crime now than they were a year ago, while a quarter said they were victimized last year. One firearms seller said customers are scared in a way he hasn’t seen before, while survey results indicate that many residents want to tighten gun laws.

The Baton Rouge Police Department declined to comment on the survey results.

Every year, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation publishes a City Stats report with help from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab. For the first time in five years, pollsters asked survey participants about gun control and results suggest greater interest in more-restrictive policies.

The poll was conducted in May and June included 498 East Baton Rouge Parish residents. During the survey period, 31 percent of whom were contacted via landline and 69 percent by cellphone. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Eighty-eight percent favored background checks for all gun sales, 78 percent supported more security checkpoints and systems at schools and 68 percent backed raising the legal firearm purchase age to 21 "to prevent mass shootings," the report states.

“This is really huge news to come out of a place like Louisiana. … Public support translates to pressure for legislators,” said Stasha Rhodes, a Napoleonville native and Southern University alumna who now works for Giffords, a gun control non-profit.

Mass shootings – including the ambush on Baton Rouge law enforcement two summers ago – have galvanized the public to demand more restrictions, Rhodes said. There’s space to at least address the matter and talk about gun laws and pass laws that could take firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, Rhodes said.

There is one measure that still divides Baton Rouge — 49 percent of poll respondents back a ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons. However, there’s also a lot of gray area; 35 percent outright opposed such a ban, but 16 percent of participants said they weren’t sure or declined to answer.

Gun owners and non-owners were split: only 39 percent of those who own a firearm support a ban on semi-automatic weapons sales, while 59 percent of non-owners did.

In 2013, 52 percent opposed “a parish-level ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons,” a related but different question.

The National Rifle Association criticized the “misleading way the question was asked” this year.

“The question implies the gun control policies it’s asking about would actually work in preventing mass shootings – and 100 percent of people want to prevent mass shootings. If researchers want a particular answer, they craft questions that lead people to answer a certain way. Anti-gun researchers have always operated this way to create the impression that Americans support their extreme agenda,” NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter wrote in an email to The Advocate.

However, gun control advocates see the BRAF poll as evidence of changing public opinion.

“Every year we learn something new,” like a newfound approval of same-sex marriage, increasing support for marijuana legalization and more backing for regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, wrote BRAF chairman Bill Balhoff.

“This year, we find that residents — a strong majority, in fact — favor thorough background checks on all gun sales, and they likewise support raising the minimum age for purchasing a firearm. A plurality of residents say they want semi-automatic rifles banned,” he wrote.

Several gun-control advocates said that recent mass shootings have driven up interest in their cause. The Louisiana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America saw its numbers swell following the fatal shooting of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this year, said Angelle Bradford, the chapter’s deputy leader.

With lobbying, she believes gun-control advocates can get “common sense” laws on Louisiana’s books in the next five years, such as universal background checks and “red flag” rules that would require people to surrender their firearms to law enforcement if they’re suicidal or a domestic violence threat.

Not everyone is on board, for more restrictions though.

Bryan Guillory, owner of Louisiana Gun & Reloading Supply on Jefferson Highway, listed what he saw as deficiencies in the measures identified in BRAF’s survey.

“The guns aren’t the problem. People are the problem. … We (99 percent of responsible gun owners) are the only group blamed for something we’ve never done,” he said.

For example, the poll asked about banning semi-automatic weapon sales, though handguns are far more likely to be used to commit a crime, Guillory said. Pollsters asked about raising the minimum purchase age to 21, which feels arbitrary, he said. The mass murderer in last year’s Las Vegas shooting was 64 years old; such a law wouldn’t have stopped shooters like him, Guillory pointed out.

The federal government gives teenagers firearms when they enlist for military service, said Bob McKee, an officer with the Liberty Gun Club. Sport shooters like those in his club use semi-automatic rifles in competitions and it would be “ridiculous” to ban their sale, he said.

Like Guillory, McKee worried about laws that gradually chip away at the Second Amendment and said he doesn’t want criminals to be the only ones with guns while responsible owners are less able to defend themselves.

“You don’t want to give up anything,” he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.