WASHINGTON — Majorities of U.S. adults think mass shootings would occur less often if guns were harder to get, and that schools and other public places have become less safe than they were two decades ago, polling shows.
Still, public attitudes on guns and gun policy are complicated, and the issue has seen little by way of federal legislative changes in more than a decade. In the wake of Tuesday’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Democratic governors and lawmakers are pleading for gun restrictions. Reforms will meet Republican resistance both in Congress and state legislatures and are unlikely to advance.
While it’s not unusual for polling to show higher support for restrictions among the general public after a mass shooting, attitudes on gun regulation are overall rather stable over time, said John Roman, senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago.
In 2020, about half of voters in the presidential election said U.S. gun laws should be made stricter, according to AP VoteCast, compared with about a third saying they should be left as they are and only about 1 in 10 saying they should be made less strict.
What else do Americans think about gun laws?
In March 2019, an AP-NORC poll showed a majority of U.S. adults — 58% — saying they thought there would be fewer mass shootings in the U.S. if it were harder for people to legally obtain guns. Many specific measures that would curb access to guns or ammunition also get majority support, according to polls.
There is widespread agreement on one measure in particular: making private gun sales subject to background checks.
Attitudes on other gun policies vary starkly by partisanship. For example, new data from an AP-NORC poll conducted earlier in May shows 51% of U.S. adults favor a nationwide ban on the sale of AR-15 rifles and similar semiautomatic weapons, while 32% are opposed. An additional 18% say they hold neither opinion. Seventy-five percent of Democrats but just 27% of Republicans were in favor.
Erica Martinez, a 37-year-old in Lincoln, Nebraska, said she was “horrified” and “irate” after Tuesday's massacre and that there's obviously a gun problem in this country. Laws need to be stricter, she said, and it should be harder for someone to get a gun.
“These school shootings are becoming more prevalent now, and there’s just too many innocent little lives that are lost because this 18-year-old kid was able to just go and buy a gun," Martinez said. “I honestly and truly think that it could have been prevented.”
Gun ownership in the US
In April 2021, a Pew Research Center survey showed gun owners much more likely than those without guns to support expanding concealed carry and shortening waiting periods for legal gun purchases. Gun owners were much less likely to back bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-type weapons.
Forty-six percent of U.S. adults report living in a household with a gun, according to a March poll from NORC at the University of Chicago. Five percent said they purchased a gun for the first time during the pandemic, and those first time gun owners tend to share policy preferences with long term gun owners, NORC's Roman said.
Federal data also shows gun sales rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The number one reason why somebody buys a firearm is they feel like it puts them at less risk,” said Roman. “When you have an event like COVID, where people feel like the world is very unsafe in general, you see big spikes in people buying one.”
Mike Miller, a 68-year-old conservative in Woodland Park, Colorado, said he owns guns for home defense, along with hunting.
“I think it’s in our constitution, and I think we have the right to have our weapons," he said. "I don’t think that’s a problem with like the shooting that just happened. I think it’s bigger issues.”
Who is more motivated on the issue?
Efforts to pass gun restrictions — even background checks — have been futile in Washington, met with opposition from Republican lawmakers.
Roman suggests people who own guns and oppose gun control have a louder voice in the political process because of their personal stake on the issue. Those who want stricter laws have strong opinions about the impact of guns on society, he said, but they often lack that personal connection.
“Your own costs and benefits are always more motivating, galvanizing, they create stronger preferences than the sort of conceptual, theoretical preferences,” he said.
The voices of those looking for restrictions tend to get louder after a mass shooting, Roman said, creating a window of opportunity for gun control policy before they recede again.
An AP-NORC poll conducted just after a shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan showed 24% of Americans — including 41% of Democrats — named gun laws in an open-ended question as a priority for the government for 2022, a sharp increase from just 5% for 2021 and 12% for 2020.
“Either there’s going to be a quick movement towards some gun regulation and new gun laws or this moment will pass and next year, we’ll be talking about something else,” he said.
Many Republican lawmakers have focused on mental health as a key factor in preventing mass shootings at schools.
The 2019 AP-NORC poll showed bullying, along with the availability of guns, were considered most responsible for shootings in schools. About half of Americans said these were both “a great deal” to blame. In the poll, there was bipartisan agreement on bullying, but Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to blame the availability of guns.
Derek Lavarnway, a 44-year-old political independent in Chaumont, New York, said his main concern is mental health.
“I think there’s a balance between gun control and, you know, figuring out ways to get people feeling better about themselves and their lives," he said. “We desperately need to somehow find a way for a society that creates individuals that don’t do these sorts of things.”