Poll: Sandy Hook shooting a sign of big, societal problems

December 17, 2012

In a major reversal, a slim majority of Americans see the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary as a sign of broader problems in society, not merely an isolated act of a troubled individual, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.


From the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech through this year’s massacre at a theater in Aurora, Colo., the viewpoint that these were discrete episodes had been steadily increasing. The switch parallels a wave of bipartisan reaction to the mass murder in Connecticut that some speculate may prove a “tipping point” in the politics of gun control.

After the Aurora killings in July, just 24 percent of Americans in a Pew Research Center poll said the shootings there reflected bigger issues in the country. That number has more than doubled to 52 percent, with 43 percent seeing Sandy Hook as an isolated incident -- 67 percent had said so about Aurora.

The shift after Sandy Hook is broad-based, with most Democrats, Republicans and independents alike now saying the shooting is a sign of societal problems. This opinion has increased by double-digits across party lines since the 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz. that killed six people and injured former congresswoman Gabbie Giffords.

However, beyond broad opinion change in assessments of the cause, few underlying opinions about gun control have shifted significantly in the immediate aftermath of the latest shooting.

The percentages of Americans supporting stricter gun laws and the relative preference for tougher enforcement over new laws are on par with previous surveys. So too is clear majority support for a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition clips -- the kind that have been used in all of the high-profile killings.

There is also little change in widespread -- and intense -- opposition to banning the sale of handguns in general. Fully 71 percent of all Americans oppose such a blanket prohibition; 56 percent do so “strongly.”

But there are other signs of a changed landscape in the battle over gun control.

For the first time since 2007, significantly more people strongly favor than strongly oppose stricter laws (44 to 32 percent). The number advocating tougher enforcement over new laws has dipped under 50 percent for the first time in periodic polls back to 2000. This change is most pronounced among Democrats, who, for the first time over this period clearly favor more laws over more enforcement (50 to 35 percent). About two-thirds of Republicans continue to advocate doing a better job carrying out existing gun laws.

These poll questions were asked Friday through Sunday, among a random national sample of 602 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

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Aaron Blake · December 17, 2012