Ten years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, the small Newtown, Connecticut, community was forever changed when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The massacre remains the deadliest mass shooting in a K-12 school in the U.S. The ages of the student victims -- all of whom were six or seven -- were particularly striking, and there were immediate calls from many to tighten national gun laws.
Barack Obama, the sitting president at the time of the massacre, described it as the worst day of his presidency. In the weeks that followed, Obama’s approval rating rose to a three-year high, and his administration, led by then-Vice President Joe Biden, proposed a number of sweeping new policies. The proposals sought to provide tools for law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community, with the goal of reducing gun violence and keeping children safe.
Gallup conducted two surveys in the first few days after the shootings. The first, on Dec. 18, 2012, asked Americans to say how likely they thought each of six measures to prevent mass shootings would be, and the results reflected news reports about the circumstances surrounding the massacre.
Increasing the police presence at schools led the list, with 53% believing it would be a “very effective” approach, but increasing government spending on mental health screening and treatment, as well as reducing the depiction of gun violence in media, were close behind. About four in 10 saw banning the sale of assault and semi-automatic rifles as very effective, while fewer thought arming school staff or not publicizing mass shooters’ names would be as helpful.
The second survey, taken Dec. 19-22, measured public attention to media coverage of the shootings, finding 50% following it very closely and another 37% somewhat closely. The combined 87% attention score was one of the highest Gallup had ever recorded at that time for major news stories.
The poll also found Americans about evenly divided in their views of whether a similar crime could happen in their community. The slight majority of parents of K-12 schoolchildren nationwide (56%) thought their own schools were doing enough to prevent shootings, while 34% thought not enough was being done.
Gallup polling in January 2013 found majority-level support from the public for each of nine proposals put forward by the Obama administration. These included required background checks for all gun sales (91%), increased funding for youth mental health programs (82%), increased funding for programs to train law enforcement and schools in responding to active armed attacks (79%) and increased criminal penalties for people who buy guns for someone who has not passed a background check (75%). Just two of the nine did not receive majority-level support from both Republicans and Democrats -- the reinstitution of an assault weapons ban similar to the one that expired in 2004 and a ban on magazines with over 10 rounds.
Despite broad public support and multiple legislative attempts, Congress ultimately rejected the bills, and no new gun legislation was passed.
Americans’ Views of Gun Laws, Then and Now
Gallup polling on gun policy has historically shown that public support for tougher gun control measures spikes after prominent mass shootings and declines as the memory of them fades.
This happened in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre as well as other mass shootings that have occurred in the past decade. These include two high-profile school shootings -- the February 2018 murders of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the May 2022 massacre of 19 third- and fourth-grade students and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
After each of these mass shootings, Gallup found an increase in Americans’ calls for stricter laws covering the sale of firearms, followed by an eventual decline in support for tighter restrictions.
Parents’ Fear After School Shootings Follows Similar Pattern
Likewise, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, U.S. parents’ fear for their children’s physical safety at school increased and remained at that same level as they were sending their children back to school in the late summer of 2013. It took several years, but in 2017, parents’ fear returned to the level seen before the incident. Yet the Parkland shootings the following year resulted in parents’ fear for their children’s safety spiking again. It remained at roughly that level in 2019, but after the Uvalde massacre, it rose 10 percentage points to 44%, the highest level in more than two decades.
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