More than three-quarters of Americans doubt the nation’s ability to stop “lone wolf” terrorist attacks by individuals acting on their own, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Despite widespread doubts about security, the poll finds fears of a family member being a victim of terrorism have not risen since a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 and attacks in Paris last month that left 130 people dead.
President Obama, who addressed the nation in a rare Oval Office speech after the shootings, continues to receive negative marks for handling terrorism and dealing with Islamic State militants. Despite his call for greater gun restrictions aimed at keeping high-powered guns out of terrorist hands, the Post-ABC poll finds record-high opposition to a ban on assault weapons.
The San Bernardino shooting joins a series of attacks in recent years by individuals without clear coordination with radical groups, such as al-Qaeda. The married couple who opened fire at a work holiday party pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook on the day of the attack, federal investigators said, but the group has not linked itself as clearly to the shooting as it has to the Paris attacks. The FBI has expanded its investigation to a growing network of people with close ties to the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, based on cooperation with a neighbor who legally bought two rifles used in the attack.
Americans express far less confidence in the country’s ability to thwart attacks by individuals than foreign terrorist groups. While 43 percent have at least a “good amount” of confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to stop a large-scale, organized attack by a foreign group, only 22 percent said the same about stopping “lone wolf” attacks, in which individuals decide to act on their own. Seventy-seven percent express a “fair amount” or no confidence that government can stop such individuals, including one-third who lack any confidence at all.
In rare bipartisan agreement, nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and over two-thirds of Democrats report a “fair amount” of confidence or less in the government’s ability to stop attacks by motivated individuals. When asked about larger-scale attacks, most Democrats said they are confident in federal prevention measures, while most Republicans are doubtful.
After the Paris attacks in November, a Post-ABC poll found more Americans saying a terrorist attack in the United States with a large number of casualties was likely in the near future. While those concerns may have been validated by the San Bernardino shooting, the new poll finds personal worries are on par with recent years and down slightly from this summer.
Forty-two percent of adults said they are very or somewhat worried about themselves or a family member becoming a victim of terrorism, down from 49 percent in a Gallup poll in June asking the same question, which was the highest level of worry in the firm’s surveys since 2001. The current level of concern fits in the middle of the range seen over the past decade.
Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 45 percent, similar to 46 percent last month but down from 51 percent in October, and ending the year four points above where he stood in December of last year. Just as many Americans approve as disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, 48 percent, but disapproval rises to 53 percent for his handling of the terrorism threat and 59 percent for the Islamic State.
The San Bernardino shooting reignited the debate over whether the nation’s gun laws are too loose or whether greater civilian firearm ownership could prevent violence. When asked which is the better reaction to terrorism, 47 percent said encouraging more people to carry guns legally, while 42 percent preferred enacting stricter gun-control laws.
As with gun restrictions generally, support for encouraging more people to carry guns is higher among Republicans, men, those without college degrees and those who live in rural parts of the country. A majority of respondents who report being “very worried” about a family member being a terrorism victim also support encouraging more people to carry guns, compared with half of those who are less worried.
On a specific policy, 53 percent of Americans now oppose a national ban on assault weapons, with opposition rising 11 percentage points from 2013 to its highest level in Post-ABC polling since 1994.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Dec. 10-13 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults reached on conventional and cellular telephones. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.