GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
PRINCETON, NJ -- The tragic massacre at Virginia Tech on Monday has refocused attention on the issue of gun control. It is not yet known where and how the shooter got the weapons used to kill at least 32 students at Virginia Tech, or if stricter gun control laws would have prevented the crime. Still, as was the case after the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy, Americans and their elected officials will once again find themselves wrestling with the issue of how best to attempt to control access to guns in the United States.
The Gallup Poll has tracked public perceptions on gun-related issues for several decades. This review helps put the potential renewed focus on gun control in the context of public opinion.
A Gallup update in January of this year found that Americans were more satisfied than dissatisfied with the current state of gun laws in the country. Fifty percent of Americans were satisfied with the nation's laws or policies on guns, while 43% were dissatisfied.
More broadly, the issue of guns and gun control was not highly salient in the minds of Americans prior to Monday's tragedy. Few, if any, Americans spontaneously mention guns or gun control as the most important problem facing the country or as the top priority for the president and Congress to deal with right now. Mentions of guns or gun control as the nation's top problem was highest after the Columbine school shooting in 1999 -- but only 10% mentioned it at that time, and that percentage soon fell.
Gallup has asked Americans 20 times over the last 16 years whether laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, made less strict, or kept as they are now.
In every instance, at least a majority has agreed that gun laws should be made more strict -- although the exact level of that sentiment has varied significantly. The high point for agreement with the "more strict" alternative was 78% in 1990, the first time the question was asked. The low point was in October of 2002, with only 51% in agreement.
These data suggest that if one result of the Virginia Tech shootings is to increase calls for gun control legislation, such calls will be well received by more than half the population.
There were slight changes on this measure at the time of the Columbine shootings in April of 1999. After that occurrence of gun violence, the percentage of Americans who said that gun laws should be more strict went from 60% in February of 1999 to 66% the week after the shootings. This sentiment soon reverted to the 60% range, where it remained until October of 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, but then began to fall slightly. This January's 56% agreement with the "more strict" alternative is roughly average for the last five times the question has been asked since October of 2003.
Those most in favor of stricter laws include women (66% support stricter gun laws), those living in urban areas (67%), those with postgraduate educations (69%), liberals (70%), Democrats (72%), and those who do not have a gun in the home (70%).
A similar question asked by Gallup focuses on a more general question of "gun laws" without reference to "the sale of firearms." The results to this question are not dramatically different from the question referencing the sale of firearms. Fifty-one percent of Americans in a January 2007 poll say gun laws in the country should be more strict, while 14% say less strict, and 32% say they should remain as they are now.
The National Rifle Association and other gun advocates often take the position that the correct approach to limiting gun violence is to more fully enforce existing laws rather than creating new laws. The American public in general tends to agree with this position.
Gallup has asked this question four times, and in each instance, a majority has favored the "enforce current laws more strictly and not pass new gun laws" position rather than the "pass new gun laws in addition to enforcing the current laws more strictly" alternative.
A comparison of respondents' answers to both of these questions shows about one-third of those who say gun laws should be made more strict also say that enforcing existing laws is a better approach than passing new laws. This suggests some caution in interpreting survey data showing support for stricter gun laws, because at least some of that sentiment is apparently based on the assumption that this can be done without necessarily passing new laws.
A separate Gallup survey question asks about a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons.
Two-thirds of Americans reject the idea of such a ban. This sentiment has been slightly higher in recent years than in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When this question was asked in 1959, on the other hand, 6 out of 10 Americans said they favored a law that would ban the possession of handguns.
More than 6 in 10 Republicans say they are satisfied with the nation's laws or policies on guns, while only about one-third of Democrats agree. The strong majority of Democrats feel that gun laws in the United States should be more strict, while only about a third of Republicans feel this way. Slightly less than half of Republicans feel gun laws should remain as they are at the present time. Democrats also are more likely than Republicans to support banning the possession of handguns, though a majority of both groups tend to oppose this.
There are also considerable gender differences on this issue. Men are more satisfied with the nation's gun laws and are more likely to report owning a gun, but are less likely to say that gun laws should be more strict and are less likely to favor banning guns.
In terms of being able to purchase handguns, more than 9 in 10 Americans support the government requiring background checks for people purchasing guns. Fifty percent of Americans support and 46% oppose making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess the semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles.
Although it is unclear to what degree more rigid gun control laws might have prevented the Virginia Tech tragedy, Gallup's data suggest that the public is, in general, open to the idea of stricter laws governing the sale of firearms and more rigorous enforcement of gun control laws.
Results are based on telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted across several surveys in 2006 and 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults in any one survey, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.