How Newtown changed Americans’ views on guns (and how it didn’t)

December 28, 2012

The Newtown shootings two weeks ago sparked an intense reaction across the country, and public opinion polls captured major changes in the way the public interprets such events and how strict gun laws should be, but only minor shifts in support for specific policies. Here is a rundown of what public views changed, and what didn't, after the shootings.

More interpret shooting as sign of broader problems

In a major reversal, over half of Americans saw the Newtown shooting as a reflection of broader societal problems, according to Washington Post-ABC News poll immediately after the attack. Only about a quarter of the public saw the July shootings in Aurora, Colo. as a sign of broader problems for society according to a Pew Research Center poll at the time, while two-thirds viewed it as the isolated act of a troubled individual. Likewise, nearly six in 10 saw the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six as an isolated act. 


Support spikes for restricting gun sales, in general

Fully 58 percent of Americans say laws on gun sales should be made more strict, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday, jumping from 43 percent in 2011 to its highest point since 2004. The jolt in support for gun restriction may be limited to how they are bought and sold: a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found little change in support for stricter gun control laws overall after the Sandy Hook shootings. 

(Note: The sharp rise in desire for making gun sale laws "more strict" from the Gallup poll marks a return to where Americans stood throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, when roughly six in 10 said laws should be made more strict.)

Unchanged: Big support for background checks and banning large clips, but  handgun ban is unpopular
Support for a variety of specific gun restrictions was largely unchanged after the Sandy Hook shooting. Nearly all Americans continue to support mandatory background checks for gun buyers (including at gun shows), and steady majorities support a ban on clips that fire 10 or more bullets before reloading. But polls continue to find wide opposition to a blanket ban on handguns, with roughly seven in 10 rejecting such a measure. (See the full table here)

Polls continue to find wide-ranging views on a complete ban on assault rifles: A CNN/ORC poll finds 62 percent support banning weapons like the AK-47, while a USA Today/Gallup poll found only 44 percent support a ban on assault rifles in general. Tapping a key aspect of the public debate, 65 percent in a Pew Research Center poll said allowing citizens to own assault weapons make the country "more dangerous."

Americans (still) don't hate the NRA

Most Americans - 54 percent - have a favorable impression of the National Rifle Association, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. The survey interview period surrounded the NRA's first press conference following the Newtown shooting, whose leader Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every school. The organization was less popular in 1995, when former president George H.W. Bush resigned from the group after LaPierre described some federal agents as "jack booted thugs."

And while the NRA is seen as an omnipotent political force in Washington, fewer than four in 10 Americans across the country say the group has "too much power," according to a Pew Research Center poll, down somewhat from 2000 and 1993. 

Police in schools, mental health spending seen as most effective solutions

Increasing police presence at schools was picked as one of the most effective deterrents to shootings at schools among six possibilities offered in a Gallup poll after the Connecticut shooting. Fifty-three percent of Americans said increased police presence would be "very effective" at preventing mass shootings. Fewer, 42 percent thought it said "banning the sale of assault and semi-automatic weapons" would be very effective. (Note: It's unclear how the double-barreled language of this option affected responses).

More said boosting spending on mental health screening and treatment would be "very effective" (50 percent), and 47 percent said the same for decreasing depictions of gun violence on TV, in movies and in video games. Just 34 percent said arming one official at each school with a gun would be very effective, and 27 percent said news media refusing to publicize killers' names would have an impact. 

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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Sean Sullivan | December 28, 2012