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American Public Opinion, Terrorism and Guns

American Public Opinion, Terrorism and Guns

A review of the American public opinion context after the mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 dead and more than 50 wounded

What Do Americans Want to Be Done About Terrorism?

Americans strongly favor military options as effective ways to carry out the U.S. war on terrorism, and have minimal agreement that actions relating to restrictions on Muslims either entering the country or already in the country would be effective.

Gallup gave Americans a list of 11 proposals on dealing with terrorism in a survey conducted last December after the San Bernardino mass shooting, and asked them to indicate how effective they thought each would be in reducing terrorist attacks. The complete summary is here. The top four issues in terms of perceived effectiveness were increased military action against the Islamic State/ISIS, more restrictive visa policies on letting individuals come into this country, banning gun sales to individuals who are on the government's "no fly" list, and sending more special operations forces to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Effectiveness of Actions to Combat Terrorism
How effective do you think each of the following will be in the U.S. campaign against terrorism -- very effective, somewhat effective, not too effective or not at all effective?
Very effective/ Somewhat effective
Increase U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State to take out leaders, heavy weapons, infrastructure 79
Overhaul fed'l visa waiver program to provide tighter screening for those who enter U.S. temporarily 79
Ban gun sales to people on the federal no-fly watch list 71
Send more U.S. special operations forces to fight the Islamic State or ISIS 70
Send large numbers of U.S. ground troops to Syria and Iraq to fight the Islamic State or ISIS 59
Intensify diplomatic efforts to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war 56
Provide more U.S. training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State/ISIS 55
Pass new laws making it harder to buy assault weapons 55
A new law that would prevent any Muslim from entering the U.S. 38
Require Muslims, including those who are U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID 32
A new law that would impose a religious test to enter the U.S., banning those who identify as Muslim 28
Gallup, Dec. 11-12, 2015

Among the lowest on the effectiveness list were two ways of asking about restricting Muslims from entering the U.S., proposals Donald Trump advanced and then reiterated in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Also near the bottom of the list is a proposal to require Muslims, including those who are U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID. These three are the only proposals tested that generate less than a majority of "very/somewhat effective" ratings.

Hillary Clinton on Monday called for a ban on assault weapons. Fifty-five percent of Americans think that making it harder to buy assault weapons would be effective in the war on terrorism, putting it below average on this list.

What Are American Attitudes About Gun Control?

A comprehensive review of American attitudes about gun control conducted after the San Bernardino shootings in December of last year highlighted a number of major conclusions about the public's attitudes toward gun control.

  1. A majority of Americans -- 55% -- favor stricter gun control laws, higher than at several points in recent years since President Barack Obama took office and about where this attitude was during the George W. Bush years, but below earlier points -- including 78% in 1990, when the question was first asked.

    Trend: Should laws covering firearms sales be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?
  2. Support for stricter gun control laws often rises after high-profile shooting incidents and then often subsides again.
  3. Large majorities of Americans support almost all proposals that deal with increased or more thorough background checks before guns can be purchased. Americans are not convinced, however, that increased background-check laws would reduce the number of mass shootings in the U.S.
  4. Gallup research has shown mixed attitudes about banning assault weapons in recent years. A question asked in referendum format in 2013 ("Would you vote for or against a law that would reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to 2004?") found 56% support. A separate trend question asking whether Americans were for or against a law that would make it "illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles" found weaker support, with 44% in 2012 saying they were in favor and 51% against. The difference in responses to the two questions could partly reflect the different times they were asked or the question wording, with the reference to "reinstating" in the first question reminding the respondents that the law was previously in place.
  5. The large majority of Americans oppose a total ban on the possession of handguns.
  6. Americans are skeptical that gun control laws would be highly efficacious in controlling acts of gun violence and mass shootings. As is evident from the list discussed previously, in battling terrorism, Americans assign below-average effectiveness to a ban on assault-type weapons, out of a list of 11 different proposals tested in December.
  7. About four in 10 Americans own or have a gun in the home.
  8. Gun control and gun violence do not appear high on lists of the priorities that Americans have for their next president and are infrequently mentioned as the most important problem facing the U.S. today.
  9. Last year, about a quarter of Americans said they would vote only for a candidate who shares their views on guns, while half said a candidate's position on guns would be one factor among many they would take into account.
  10. Attitudes about gun control are highly differentiated by party, with Democrats most supportive and Republicans least supportive.

What Priority Do Americans Give to Fighting Terrorism and Gun Control?

Gallup's recent research shows that terrorism is one of the core issues Americans want the presidential candidates to address. When Americans are asked to say how important each of a list of 17 issues will be in determining their vote for president, terrorism and national security are higher in importance (45% "extremely important") than any other issue tested. When "extremely" and "very" are combined, terrorism and national security are one of four issues at the top of the list, along with the economy, employment and jobs, and education.

In response to an open-ended question asking Americans to name the single issue they believe will be most important for the next president to address, national security and defense come in fourth, with 9% of mentions (behind the economy, immigration and healthcare), while 5% specifically mention terrorism. Few Americans mention guns or gun control specifically.

Americans are less likely to mention terrorism in Gallup's most recent monthly update (from early June) of their perceptions of the most important problem facing the nation. Four percent mention it specifically, with another 5% who say national security and defense and 2% who say "lack of military defense." Only 1% mention ISIS and the Islamic State per se as the nation's top problems.

At the same time, Gallup's annual Mood of the Nation poll in January showed that Americans were increasingly worried about security from terrorism.

Gallup's annual foreign policy poll conducted in February found that "international terrorism" ranked at the top of a list of 12 threats tested, with 79% of Americans viewing it as a "critical" threat.

Do Americans Differentiate Between Trump and Clinton on Handling Terrorism and Guns?

Trump has a slight four-percentage-point edge when Americans are asked whether he or Hillary Clinton would do the better job of handling terrorism and national security. The precise numbers are: Trump 50% and Clinton 46%, with 4% saying the two candidates would be the same or having no opinion. The American public has almost precisely the same reactions when asked to distinguish between Trump and Clinton on gun policy, with Trump at 50% and Clinton at 45%.

This near-parity on terrorism and guns contrasts with other issues on which Clinton wins handily, such as climate change and social issues, and those where Trump has a significant advantage, such as the federal budget deficit and the size and efficiency of the federal government.

The Republican candidate has enjoyed the advantage on the national security dimension in two of the three previous elections. In October 2004, three years after 9/11, George W. Bush had a 22-point advantage over Democratic nominee John Kerry as the better candidate to handle terrorism; and in October 2008, John McCain had a 16-point advantage over Obama. In the fall of 2012, however, the Democratic incumbent Obama had a 10-point advantage over Republican Mitt Romney.


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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