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American Public Opinion and Guns

Chart: data points are described in article

After the horrific mass shooting in California on Wednesday that resulted in 14 victims being killed, President Barack Obama called again for new gun control measures, saying, "There are some steps we could take not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don't happen as frequently: common-sense gun safety laws, stronger background checks." Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders weighed in, saying, "We need to significantly expand and improve background checks." Hillary Clinton said in Florida, "33,000 Americans a year die. It is time for us to say we are going to have comprehensive background checks, we are gonna close the gun show loopholes."

The American public agrees in principle with these types of proposals. In Gallup's latest October update, 55% of Americans said they supported stricter gun control laws. That 55% is higher than has been typical in recent years, most likely because the poll was conducted shortly after nine people were killed in an Oregon community college mass shooting. But we also found a spike in the desire for stricter gun laws after previous shootings, and no doubt the sentiment is as high or higher now after the California shootings.

More directly, over time, almost any question that we or other pollsters ask Americans about background check laws and other ways of restricting access to guns gets very high support levels. In the October poll, 86% of Americans favored "a law which would require universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. using a centralized database across all 50 states." A recent Quinnipiac poll found 77% support for banning gun sales to those on terrorist watch lists -- a measure proposed by a number of Democratic senators in the last several days. Prior Gallup polling has found strong support for increasing penalties for those who buy guns for others who have not passed background checks, banning the possession of armor-piercing bullets, requiring background checks for those purchasing guns at gun shows, and restricting purchase of high-capacity ammunition clips.

Americans, in short, would be totally on board if Congress were to pass more restrictive background check laws.

But the American public, at the same time, appears doubtful that these background checks would have a major impact on reducing mass shootings -- something Obama recognized when he said that his proposals would not eliminate every one of the mass shootings. Just after most Americans in the October poll said that they approved of a background check law, they were asked to indicate how much this type of new law would reduce the number of mass shootings in the U.S. A majority (53%) of Americans said they thought the law would reduce mass shootings a little or not at all. Just 19% said these laws would reduce the number of mass shootings a great deal and 28% said a moderate amount.

This lack of perceived efficacy of the laws fits with reports showing that California already had strict gun control laws in place. One of the alleged shooters in this situation was born in the U.S. and apparently, from what is known at this point, had little trouble acquiring the weapons even with the background checks and restrictions -- although it is possible that some of the weapons could have been purchased in an adjoining state with less strict laws.

Another alternative would be to ban weapons altogether. Americans do not generally support laws that totally ban anything. In October, only 27% favored a law banning handguns altogether except for law enforcement. Gallup has asked that question for 57 years, and only once -- when it was first asked in 1959 -- did a majority support banning handguns. In 2012, we found 44% of Americans favored a law that would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles, while 51% opposed. Prior to that, however, in 1996 and 2000, this measure found majority support. When phrased differently in a 2013 poll, 56% of Americans said they would vote for a law that would reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to 2004 -- the higher level of support perhaps resulting from the fact that the question reminded respondents that this law had been on the books previously.

The October poll did give us an indication that more Americans are now concerned enough about guns and gun control to say that it would affect their propensity to vote for certain candidates. The 26% of registered voters who said they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on gun control is considerably higher than what we found when we asked the same question in 1999 and 2000. This sentiment is more likely to be held by those who are opposed to stricter gun control than those who support it. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to say they would take a candidate's position on guns into account.

News reports indicate that gun sales may have soared over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, based on data showing a big increase in FBI background checks. The apparent uptick in gun sales could be driven by Americans' desire to have guns for protection. In fact, the October Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans think the nation would be safer if more Americans carried concealed weapons. A different trend question asked in 2014 found that Americans believe having a gun in the house makes it safer rather than more dangerous -- a marked shift in opinion from previous polling. A Pew Research poll similarly found that a majority of Americans believe owning guns does more to protect people from being the victim of crime that put them at risk.

Where does that leave elected officials who understandably are looking for ways to help reduce the mass shootings that have so tragically dominated the news in recent years? Research shows that the lawmakers' constituents, taken as a collective whole, believe the Second Amendment was designed to give the public the right to bear arms. Nearly 70% of Americans have shot a gun in their lifetime, and more than four in 10 have a gun in their home, suggesting that guns are, to some degree, a way of life in America. The public resists outright bans on owning guns, although they support many different proposals to restrict ownership and have been willing to countenance the idea of a ban on assault weapons in the past. The majority believe that more Americans owning concealed weapons would make the nation safer rather than more dangerous.

The idea of passing new gun laws has the appeal of representing straightforward, concrete action. Americans are all in favor of their lawmakers passing more laws restricting access to guns, although -- and this is key -- Americans are not convinced that such laws are going to be highly effective in reducing mass shootings.

A more complex approach is to attempt to understand why it is that shooters engage in mass shootings, and what it is about society and culture today that may provide the context in which individuals make decisions to engage in such catastrophic, deadly behaviors -- and then to attempt to address those causes. But, as is true with the attempt to understand a lot about human behavior, it is very hard to isolate these types of factors, which can range across focus points such as youthful alienation, religious fundamentalism, terrorist organizations, mental instability, the lack of meaning in young people's lives, the lack of jobs, the loss of personal identity, peer relations, copycat behaviors and so forth. Even if these types of causes can be determined, it is obviously going to be very difficult to implement simple or timely steps that would change them.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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