ATLANTA -- Americans have long had a complex relationship with guns.
Now, a new study shows that the country's deep political divide is reflected in attitudes toward gun control. The Pew survey released Thursday found a sharp drop in overall support for gun control despite common ground on some key issues.
For example, when people were asked whether it was more important to protect gun rights or control gun ownership, 51 percent favored gun control and 47 percent favored gun rights. Compare that with responses in 2000, when two-thirds of those surveyed said they supported gun control measures.
People in the new survey were in broad agreement when asked about specific gun control measures.
Some 89 percent supported preventing the mentally ill from buying guns and 84 percent of all adults supported background checks for private sales and at gun shows.
Barring gun purchases for people on no-fly lists won support from 83 percent, while 71 percent of adults, including a small majority of gun owners, supported a federal database tracking gun sales.
The survey showed wide disparities in how people view firearms along political, gender, racial and geographic lines. The gaps come at the start of President Donald Trump's term. He is seen as one of the most gun-friendly presidents and could be supported by a GOP-controlled Congress, although there has been little action on gun issues since January.
About half of the public said making it more difficult to purchase a firearm would mean fewer mass shootings, while a little over one-third said it would have no impact.
Most people attribute gun violence to the ease in illegally getting access to a firearm, and the public can't decide whether making it easier to legally purchase a firearm would lower or raise the crime rate.
Republicans have made the most significant shifts on guns while Democrats have remained consistent in their views, said Kim Parker, Pew's director of social trends research.
"This reflects that the issue has really become more polarized, more driven by partisan attitudes," Parker said.
The study also showed that people in the United States, whether they own a firearm or not, have broad exposure to guns. At least two-thirds have lived in a household with guns and about 70 percent have fired a gun.
The main reason most cited for wanting to own a gun? Protection.
Two-thirds of gun owners say they own a gun to protect themselves or loved ones. Nearly one-third of gun owners have five or more. Still, just one-quarter of them said they usually carry a firearm outside the home.
That willingness to purchase a firearm is despite the fact that 44 percent of adults said they personally know someone who was shot and about one-quarter say they or a family member have been threatened or intimidated by someone with a gun.
The Pew Research Center sought to better understand Americans' "complex relationship" with firearms. Researchers wanted to see people's views on various policy issues -- from safe storage of firearms around children to limits on who and where someone can carry a gun.