Parsing the Polls on Gun Control
By Chris Cillizza,
In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, the issue of gun control is likely to reemerge in the national political debate. But will the Monday's terrible massacre fundamentally reshape American public opinion about guns and gun control? And will gun control now join Iraq, health care, terrorism and the economy as key issues around which voters will make their decisions at the ballot box?
Recent and historical polling information suggests the answer to both questions is no. Polling on gun control has remained remarkably consistent for the past decade or so, with external events -- even emotionally powerful ones -- not moving the dial in any appreciable way.
Let's Parse the Polls!
Scan recent surveys that touch on guns and gun control and you realize quickly that it has not been a matter of political debate in quite some time. Last fall, a question on gun control was included in an October Post/ABC News survey.
The sample was asked whether they favored or opposed "stricter gun laws." Sixty-one percent said they favored tighter restrictions while 37 percent opposed more stringent regulations.
Not surprisingly, Democrats were generally more supportive of more gun restrictions than Republicans. Seventy-three percent of Democrats favored stricter laws, compared with 52 percent of Republicans who said the same; 56 percent of independents supported tighter strictures.
The same trend was seen when voters were differentiated by ideology. Seventy-one percent of liberals backed stricter gun laws, followed by 61 percent of moderates and 55 percent of conservatives.
It's interesting to note that the Post/ABC poll was in the field shortly after the the shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania -- the third fatal school shooting in a week's time. Events like the Amish school shooting or even Columbine incident -- i.e. ones that managed to make gun violence in schools a part of the daily debate for several years -- don't have any long-term impact on Americans' overall beliefs about gun laws. Since 1989, an average of 63 percent have expressed support for stricter gun laws -- regardless of external events.
Gallup provides more historical perspective. A survey conducted at almost the same time the Post/ABC poll was in the field last fall (after the Amish shooting) found that 53 percent of the sample favored stricter enforcement of current law while 43 percent backed the idea of stricter enforcement of current laws as well as new regulations.
For more than a decade, Gallup has also asked a standard question -- "Do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?" The results show that support for tighter gun control has actually weakened over past years.
In mid-October 2004, 54 percent of Gallup's sample said they agreed that "the laws covering the sales of firearms" should be "more strict," while 11 percent favored "less strict" laws and 34 percent preferred to uphold the status quo. Compare that with 51 percent who said they favored stricter laws, 11 percent backing less strict regulations and 36 percent supporting the laws as they were currently written in October 2002.
In 1999, when Gallup asked the question six times in the wake of Columbine, the number of those in favor of stricter laws ranged between 60 and 66 percent. The "less strict" number fluctuated between five and nine percent while the "kept as now" number ranged from 25 to 31 percent. Going back to March 1993, the tougher laws number was 70 percent in a Gallup survey; in 1990 it was 78 percent.
Given the fairly entrenched views about gun control and apparent disconnect between tragedy and public opinion, it seems unlikely that the shootings at Virginia Tech will have a lasting impact on the political debate over guns. While a solid majority of Americans believes that some gun control makes sense, they are generally opposed to banning guns entirely and would simply prefer to see the current laws enforced. The public also tends to blame cultural factors as much or more than the availability of firearms for tragedies like this one. And, the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, closely monitoring and fighting any attempts to restrict gun rights. That vigilance has largely kept gun control legislation at bay over the past several years.
Pro-gun-control lawmakers may argue that the Virginia Tech killings -- the worst in modern American history -- were so awful that public opinion will almost certainly swing toward tougher gun laws. A decade's worth of polling, however, suggests they are still likely to face an uphill struggle.