After the mass killing of eight people in the Atlanta area on March 16, and the deaths of 10 people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on March 22, President Joe Biden called for immediate action to ban assault weapons and to tighten the nation's background checks system. Republicans in Congress pushed back. Sen. John Thune said that Republican members of the Senate were not eager "to do things that would appear to be addressing it [gun violence] but actually don't do anything to fix the problem" -- while Sen. Ted Cruz argued against new gun control laws, saying, "If you want to stop these murders, go after the murderers."
If it were up to Americans, what would they do? The immediate answer is straightforward. The data show strong public support for proposed legislative changes that would do such things as require background checks for all gun purchases, ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, require all privately owned guns to be registered with the police, and require a 30-day waiting period for all gun sales. And, although there is debate on what does and does not constitute an assault weapon, a Gallup review of available data and question wording experiments in 2019 confirmed that such a ban does have majority support. More generally, 57% say that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict.
At the same time, it appears that Americans support these types of new laws even though they are not necessarily convinced of their efficacy in stopping mass shootings. A 2018 Pew Research poll showed that Americans were just as likely to say making it harder for people to obtain guns would make no difference in the number of mass shootings (46%) as they were to say such action would result in fewer mass shootings (47%). A Gallup poll in 2017 found 58% of Americans believing that new gun laws would have little or no effect on mass shootings.
Americans also appear to recognize that there is more to gun violence than the availability of guns per se. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in 2019 showed higher support for increased funding for mental health screening and treatment than for any of seven other types of gun control legislation tested. A Gallup survey showed higher support for "making major changes to school security measures and the mental health system" than for "making major changes to the laws on the sale of guns and ammunition" as a method for preventing future school shootings. Americans are also more likely to blame the failure of the mental health system than easy access to guns for mass shootings in the U.S. And, as my colleague Lydia Saad noted in a guide to public opinion on guns, Gallup found nearly half of Americans blaming mass shootings on the mental health system's failure to identify potential shooters after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
In short, I think it is fair to say that Americans recognize that reducing gun deaths is going to require several approaches -- increased controls on access to guns and increased focus on the background and mental state of those individuals who take lives using guns.
New Gun Legislation Faces a Major Partisan Divide
Gallup's data show that Republicans are more likely than others to own guns, with about six in 10 living in a gun household, compared with 39% of independents and 31% of Democrats. This partially reflects differences in geographic location; Republicans disproportionately live in the South and in rural areas, where gun ownership is more normative.
Republicans, even those without guns, are also much more likely than others to oppose new laws regulating gun sales. Gun legislation is, in fact, one of the touchstone or symbolic issues -- like climate change -- that epitomize the nation's substantial ideological and partisan divide.
Gallup noted after its annual Crime poll last October that support for stricter gun laws was lower than in the previous year (although at 57%, still a majority). This was largely due to a drop in support among Republicans, from 36% in 2019 to 22% in 2020, even as some 85% of Democrats wanted stricter gun laws. As my colleague Megan Brenan pointed out, "The 63-point gap between Republicans and Democrats is the highest on record over the past two decades."
This partisan divide helps explain why there is little new gun legislation emanating from Congress despite overall public opinion favoring such new laws; Republican leaders balk at overriding their constituents' strongly held views on the topic.
But another factor is at least partially responsible for the lack of new gun control legislation. Guns and gun control do not appear to be a top priority for Americans.
Gallup's monthly update on the most important problem facing the country rarely shows significant numbers of Americans mentioning guns or gun control as the nation's top concern. For the first three months of this year, for example, Gallup's surveys (all conducted before the Atlanta and Boulder shootings) showed almost no Americans naming guns as the nation's top problem. Indeed, the highest percentage mentioning guns in Gallup's history was only 13% -- in March 2018, following the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed. Gun policy was in the middle of a list of election issues considered important by voters in a Gallup poll conducted last fall. An AP/NORC poll in December showed that 5% of Americans mentioned gun issues as one of the issues they wanted government to be working on in 2021, well below mentions of such issues as COVID-19, healthcare reform, the economy, jobs, the environment, education, racial inequities and immigration.
Another way to measure priority for changing gun laws is a Gallup question asking Americans how satisfied or dissatisfied they are with various aspects of American life, one of which is "the nation's laws or policies on guns." Dissatisfaction with the nation's gun laws was at 56% this year, close to the average for the 21 issues tested in the January 2021 poll but substantially below dissatisfaction with issues such as the nation's efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness and the state of race relations. And some 8% of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws but want them to be less strict, leaving well less than half of Americans (41%) who are both dissatisfied with gun laws and wanting them to be more strict.
More Guns Equals More Gun Deaths?
The news media and political leaders focus intensely on the tragedy of mass shootings when they occur, and pollsters tend to follow suit and focus their surveys on the same events. The reality, however, is that only about 1.5% of all gun violence deaths in 2020 were mass shootings or mass murders. Over half were suicides, with most of the rest being homicides or murders.
Many of these gun-related suicides and homicides, some experts argue, occur simply because there are so many guns available in the U.S. In fact, America has more guns per capita than any other country in the world. By one estimate, about 45% of all privately held firearms in the world are in the U.S. Another estimate is that there are almost 400 million firearms in civilian possession in the United States, far more than any other country. Gallup and Pew estimates are that more than four in 10 Americans say there is a gun in their household. Research shows that gun availability is linked to gun deaths, making it not unexpected that the U.S. has many more gun deaths than any other developed country on a per capita basis.
The conclusion that one reason for the high number of gun deaths in the U.S. is simply the extraordinary availability of guns doesn't answer the question of why the U.S. has so many guns to begin with. That reflects a number of factors, including the frontier history of the country, the protection of the right to bear arms by the Second Amendment, the historical use of guns for hunting, the acceptance of guns as the weapon of choice for protection and revenge in popular culture, the widespread use of guns in television, movies, video games and other forms of entertainment, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that when people hear about guns in the news in relationship to gun violence they may be more likely to want to get a gun themselves as a result. (In fact, Gallup data show that the No. 1 reason why people say they own a gun is for protection, followed by hunting.)
No seriously proposed national legislation I am aware of, however, is aimed at confiscating existing guns or banning the sale of most types of firearms going forward. Efforts to control gun violence are going to have to recognize that the huge number of guns in private hands in the U.S. will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.
As is well-established by this point, efforts to reduce the very high number of gun deaths in this country face a complex and sometimes murky reality. Americans favor new laws making the purchase of guns more restrictive but are not totally convinced that these will have a great effect. Americans recognize that another area of focus should be mental health. But it is not clear exactly how to craft new laws that would effectively identify people whose mental state leads them to shoot others with guns before such behavior takes place. Two notable issues stand in the way of efforts to reduce gun violence. The first is the relatively low sense of urgency Americans give the issue. The second is the large partisan gap in support for new gun control legislation, a gap that leads to the need for compromise and cooperation in our country's legislative bodies, never an easily achieved goal.