The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A fifth of Americans think mass shootings are simply unpreventable

The archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, comforts families outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center following a deadly school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)
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There is certainly no upside to the rash of mass shootings the United States has endured over the past several decades. It does mean, though, that there is often recent polling available on how people view these incidents and where they stand on legislative efforts to curtail them.

In the wake of the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo earlier this month, Yahoo News and YouGov conducted a poll that measured Americans’ views of the event. There were specific questions about Buffalo, including ones assessing likely contributing factors to the shooter’s actions. But there were also broader questions, including ones dealing with proposed legislation.

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Perhaps the most interesting question, though, was the one that was most broad. Respondents were asked which of a series of statements came closest to matching their views: that there is no way to stop mass shootings in the U.S., that mass shootings in the U.S. can already be stopped by enforcing the current laws or that there is a way to stop mass shootings in the U.S. but it would require a drastic change in laws.

A plurality of respondents, almost half, said that a drastic change in laws was necessary. This was the consensus position among Democrats. But 1 in 5 respondents simply threw up their hands, saying that there’s just no way to stop mass shootings. Republicans were as likely to hold that position as they were either of the other two. More than a quarter of Republicans expressed resignation at mass shootings being a part of American life.

That near-nihilistic view of gun violence overlaps with a broad belief on the right that mass shootings are largely a function of mental illness. Asked what contributed to the shooting in Buffalo specifically, most Republicans said mental illness, a higher percentage than any other possible factor. The only other possible factors that at least a quarter of Republicans identified as playing a role were racism (the suspect had apparently expressed virulently racist beliefs online) and the liberal media.

Most Democrats identified both racism and a lack of gun restrictions.

Asked what played the biggest role in the Buffalo shooting, nearly half of Republicans said mental illness.

To some extent, this is a self-fulfilling description. Rational people do not take guns to a public place and kill numerous people; ergo, such shooters are easy to inherently cast as mentally ill. It’s almost like saying that a factor in the shooting was that the person was willing to commit mass murder, which is true but not useful as a way of understanding what’s happened.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made this point explicitly at a press briefing following the massacre on Tuesday in Uvalde, Tex.

“Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge,” Abbott said, making clear that “mental illness” as a cause simply means “committed a mass killing.”

Both in Buffalo and in Uvalde, the suspects had shown indications of possible violent activity before carrying out their attacks. But it’s not clear that they were “mentally ill” in a way that would necessarily have allowed their intended actions to have been prevented.

As has been seen in other polling, the Yahoo-YouGov survey found that most Americans support the universal use of background checks for gun sales. Interestingly, the poll found relatively tepid support among Republicans, among whom only a slight majority agreed with such a legislative proposal. (That despite the language of the poll question specifically mentioning mental health as a review factor.)

This has long been a problem for those advocating for more limits on gun ownership: the specifics of proposed legislation matter. In the abstract, background check legislation holds more appeal than specific laws have when presented to voters.

Asked flatly whether tighter restrictions on gun ownership could have prevented Buffalo, a plurality of respondents said no. That includes more than two-thirds of Republicans.

This makes sense given the first poll results shown: 4 in 10 Americans think either that existing laws are sufficient if enforced or that mass shootings are simply a fact of life in the United States.

At this point, assuming nothing else changes, they are.