Minnesotans across the state strongly support background checks for all gun sales, including for guns sold privately or at gun shows, the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.

More than 70 percent of all respondents — including 60 percent of gun owners and 64 percent of Republicans — favor universal background checks, a rapidly emerging gun-control priority in the legislative session. Only 25 percent oppose such a broadening of background checks, while 3 percent are undecided.

Background checks now are conducted only for sales of handguns and semiautomatics by licensed dealers. Private purchases of such weapons are not covered, whether over the back-yard fence, via the Internet or at gun shows. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, is chief sponsor of a bill that would require background checks for handguns and semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons, but would exclude traditional hunting rifles. It also would not apply to gun transfers among relatives.

The National Rifle Association and local gun rights groups vehemently oppose the bill.

But among average Minnesotans, such a bill appears to have broad and deep support. The poll, conducted Feb. 25-27 among 800 Minnesota adults, found that 82 percent of those living in Hennepin and Ramsey counties support universal background checks, along with 91 percent of DFLers, and 60 percent of Independents. Among those over the age of 60, three in four favor such checks, as do 81 percent of women. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Outside the metro area, in areas where gun ownership is highest, 69 percent of those polled supported universal background checks.

Paymar said the Minnesota Poll mirrors other polls on the issue. He said he hopes the strong support for a stricter system of checks, even in rural Minnesota and among Republicans, will help his bill gain votes.

"I think this polling data says that there's obvious support in greater Minnesota for background checks," Paymar said. As for GOP legislators, he added, "Hopefully, they will keep an open mind, given that Republicans support background checks also," he said. Gov. Mark Dayton, a hunter and gun owner, said he generally supports background checks so long as purchases of hunting weapons are exempt. "It's a common-sense closing of a big loophole," he said.

A number of DFLers, however, have also been hesitant to back universal checks. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said while background checks at gun shows might have support, requiring checks for person-to-person sales would be harder to pass. "I think it's going to be tough to get the votes to pass that," he said Friday.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the Legislature's leading opponent of universal background checks, agreed with Bakk's assessment. Cornish also said he believes support declines when people consider the costs, bureaucracy and the possibility of such a system leading to gun registration.

"I personally would pay little attention to that survey," Cornish said after hearing the results. He said when the NRA polls on the topic, citing the complexities of such a system, members oppose it. "I expect background checks to fail in the House and Senate," Cornish added.

National database favored

The poll found that 52 percent of those polled say they have a gun in the home, compared to 42 percent without and 6 percent who declined to answer. Gun ownership grows with distance from the Twin Cities — 38 percent in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, 44 percent in metro suburbs and 68 percent in the rest of the state. Gun ownership among Democrats was 41 percent, compared to 68 percent among Republicans.

On a gun-control issue that is militantly opposed by the NRA, 62 percent of poll respondents say they also favor creation of a national database that law enforcement could use to track all U.S. gun sales. Support ranges from 90 percent of DFLers to 49 percent of Republicans. Such tracking does not now exist and is anathema to the NRA, which considers it an avenue to allow government to register and potentially seize weapons.

The idea of putting a limit on the size of ammunition clips, still alive in Congress but rejected by both sides in the Minnesota debate, was supported by a 53-to-43 percent margin, with support peaking at 63 percent in Hennepin and Ramsey counties and declining to 48 percent outside the metropolitan area. On this topic, women were far more inclined toward gun-control — 59 percent of women favoring ammunition restrictions compared with 46 percent for men.

The popularity of the NRA itself also follows geographic lines. In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, only 26 percent have a favorable impression of the group, compared with 45 percent outside the metro area. Statewide, the view is divided, with 38 percent favorable to the NRA, 29 percent unfavorable and 33 percent undecided.

Anita Sundstrom of Biwabik told pollsters she supports universal background checks, and said it comes, in part, from her work at a residence for men who are mentally ill and dangerous.

"Yes, I do, with all the recent shootings and whatnot," she said of background checks. "I think there's a mental health issue, and maybe thorough background checks would help stem some of that."

Sundstrom does not own guns but says she has generally positive feelings about the NRA. "I know several people that belong to the NRA — they're pretty normal," she said. "I don't know if more background checks are the answer, but it's a start."

Lynn Anderson of Springfield is more concerned that universal background checks could lead to a system of gun registration. "It depends what we're getting out of background checks," he said. "I'm not against background checks in general, as long as it doesn't result in universal registration."

Anderson said that universal background checks likely would not have been prevented recent mass killings and added, "I don't think it's the answer to our prayers."

Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042