Two journalists in Virginia gunned down on live television by a man who also injured a third person. Two women shot and killed, along with nine other people who were injured and survived, inside a Louisiana movie theater. Nine parishioners massacred inside a South Carolina church.
Each horrifying burst of violence captured widespread attention in ways the daily cavalcade of people shot and killed across the United States rarely does, breaking through what has become a fog of pain and misery so ubiquitous as to sometimes seem like background noise. Each shooting prompted calls for stronger gun control laws, which were in turn followed by the usual reminders that such laws were unlikely to follow.
But how do people in the United States actually feel about the country’s gun laws as they currently stand? In short: There is a lot of disagreement about some proposals and gun ownership itself, but when it comes to a few particular areas, polls show Americans are still strongly in favor of adding new policies and restrictions.
Take three specific proposals: Adding background checks to private gun sales, banning people with mental illnesses from buying guns and creating a federal database to track gun sale. Public support for these changes range from very strong to overwhelming, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in July.
Background checks for all gun sales, not just those sold in stores, are supported by 85 percent of respondents, Pew’s poll found. Laws meant to stop mentally ill people from buying guns have support from 79 percent, while 70 percent support a federal database tracking gun sales. A fourth proposal — banning assault-style firearms — is supported by a majority of Americans (57 percent), but the margin is slimmer.
This poll was conducted a month after the shooting inside a Charleston, S.C., church, and it wrapped up three days before the shooting inside a Lafayette, La., movie theater, in case you want to know when this sentiment was registered with regard to recent shootings (though our recent history suggests that it would be tough to poll Americans on gun policy without some high-profile, relatively recent shooting likely fresh in their minds).
The opinions found in the Pew poll weren’t just something that cropped up after the Charleston shooting, though. Support for these proposals is remarkably similar to the feelings expressed in January 2013 in a poll taken shortly after a gunman killed 26 people, most of them young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Yet we know that despite a surge in attention for and debate over new restrictions on gun ownership, such changes are still not likely. One explanation for this is the way stories and issues surge to the front of the public consciousness before inevitably fading away as other things emerge, as Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy, wrote in an opinion essay after the Charleston incident:
Senseless gun violence mobilizes the public and focuses outrage, but that effect doesn’t last long. As the public turns back to other concerns, the gun policy debate is yielded to those who most care about the issue — gun rights proponents….
[T]he country has, to some degree, become inured to gun violence. With each new mass shooting, the sense of horror erodes, and so does pressure on lawmakers. That in turn heightens feelings that nothing effective can be done.
How people weigh in on gun control
Americans are pretty evenly divided on the question of whether they support gun rights over gun control. Pew says that 50 percent of people said in its latest poll that controlling gun ownership is more important, while 47 percent of people picked protecting gun ownership, a reversal of what Pew found in December, when those percentages were nearly flipped.
But public health professors from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found earlier this year that if you frame the question differently — asking about specific policies, rather than gun rights as a single, broad issue — majorities of people supported measures like background checks and banning assault weapons.
The Pew poll from July found something similar. It showed a close divide on the “gun rights versus gun control” question, strong support for certain gun-control measures and a split on how Americans view gun control and these proposals. Men are more likely than women to say that gun rights are more important than gun control by a 10-point margin. While big majorities of black (72 percent) and Hispanic (75 percent) people say gun control is more important, a majority of white people (57 percent) disagree.
Broken down by political affiliation, background checks are popular among Democrats (88 percent) and Republicans (79 percent) alike. The same is true for preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns (81 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Republicans).
Once you get into the other proposals, though, the divides are clear. While 85 percent of Democrats support a federal database tracking gun sales, 55 percent of Republicans feel that way; 70 percent of Democrats favor banning assault weapons, while 48 percent of Republicans agree.
It is worth pointing out that there was widespread public support for changes in 2013, when Congress rejected expanded background checks and other stricter gun control laws. (You can head here to read about how the National Rifle Association campaigned to prevent any changes that year.) Public opinion appears to be consistent on some new restrictions. But as my colleague Chris Cillizza explained earlier this summer, barring any large-scale swing among lawmakers, the votes in favor of new gun laws are not there.
The push for new gun laws seems to gain new advocates after each high-profile shooting. The day Alison Parker, a television journalist in Virginia, was shot and killed on television, her father vowed to make a change.
“I’m not going to let this issue drop,” Andy Parker said in a television interview. “We’ve got to do something about crazy people getting guns….This is not the last you’ve heard of me. This is something that is Alison’s legacy I want to make happen.”