Public Opinion on Gun Control
The twentieth century was a time of many political assassinations and violent shootings. A nation in shock mourned the deaths of President John Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. At the end of the twentieth century the nation endured rising rates of violent crime, with young people frequently involved as victims and perpetrators and often armed with guns. Between July 1992, and June 30, 1999, there were 358 school-associated violent deaths in the United States, including 255 deaths of school- aged children, or about 51 such violent deaths each year. (Schmitt rot, 2003)
Time after time, public opinion polls have shown that crime and violence are among the most important concerns troubling Americans, if not the most important. But do these concerns translate to changes in public support for federal gun control measures? I will focus on public attitudes toward gun control over both the short and longer terms.
Some Americans are convinced that more federal regulation of firearms is necessary to reduce the number of murders that are committed with guns and to ensure a safer, more civilized society. Others who support private ownership of guns insist that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by longstanding custom and by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that no cyclical increase in crime, no mass killing, nor any political murders should lead the nation to violate the Constitution and the individual rights it guarantees. Whats more, they say, knives and other instruments are used to kill people, and there is no talk of regulating or banning them.
The National Rifle Association generally believes that if more ordinary, law-abiding citizens carried weapons, criminals would not have a safe place to commit mass murders and other violent crimes.
Both supporters and opponents of gun control agree that some means should be found to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Not surprisingly, the two sides approach the issue differently. The two different strategies for gun control involve deterrence (discouraging by instilling fear) and interdiction (legally forbidding the use of) Advocates of deterrence, most notably the Second Amendment Foundation and the NRA, recommend consistent enforcement of current laws and instituting tougher penalties to discourage individuals from using firearms in crimes. They maintain that interdiction will not have any effect on crime but will strip away the constitutional rights and privileges of law-abiding Americans by taking away their right to own guns.
On the other hands, advocates of interdiction, led by such organizations as Handgun Control, Inc, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and the Violence Policy Center, believe that controlling citizens access to firearms will reduce crime. Therefore, they favor restrictions on public gun ownership.
A ten year overview of the publics attitudes about the issues government ought to be addressing is presented by the U.S. Department of Justice in its annual publication called Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002.In 1993 fewer that 0.5 percent of adults polled mentioned gun control spontaneously. In each year thereafter between 1 and 2 percent of the respondents mentioned gun control as an important issue. (Web 1)
Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of the Harris Poll, provides some insight into the meaning of the gun control numbers in an online essay dated May 17, 2000 .The essay accompanied the release of Harris Poll in which the question was asked: What do you think are the two most important issues for the government to address? Taylor noted:
Education (19 percent) and health care (16 percent) continue to come top of the list of issues mentioned spontaneously when people were asked to say which two issues are most important to address. The most interesting trend is that gun control was mentioned by 9 percent Between 1996 and the first half of 1999, only one or two percents mentioned it as an issue. It now ranks sixth, behind education, health care, crime, Social Security and taxes.(Web2)
Pollsters from several organizations have periodically surveyed the public for its opinion on gun control measures. Two Harris Polls were conducted in 2001 that attempt to describe the publics attitude on gun control laws. One poll asked In general, would you say you favor stricter gun control, or less strict gun control? and the other asked specifically about handguns. Data from these polls show that Americans support legislation to regulate firearms, but there are significant differences of opinion by gender and race/ethnicity and lesser differences by age and other demographic characteristics. A majority of adults favor stricter handgun control laws. Women are significantly more likely than men to want stricter gun laws. More non-whites that whites want stricter gun control laws.(Smith 2001) According to the Harris Polls Humphrey Taylor, the poll results are similar to replies given in 1999 and 2000 but as not as strong as the poll results from 1998, just after a number of school shooting occurred .Data by age are mixed. Respondents aged 18 to 24 years and respondents aged 30 and over favor stricter laws that the 25-to-29 age group. Democrats and Independents are more likely than Republicans to favor stronger gun laws. Lower-income, more highly educated individuals are somewhat more supportive of strict laws than are higher income individuals with some college or less. (Smith 2001)
In a 2000 survey sponsored by ABC/Washington Post the following question was posed;
Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws in this country? Do you feel that way strongly, or only somewhat? While nearly half of all respondents reported strongly favoring stricter gun control laws, women (63 percent) were far more in favor than were men (34 percent). Nearly a third of men reported being strongly opposed, compared with only 11 percent of women. The same ABC/Washington Post poll asked, Do you think stricter gun control laws would reduce the amount of violent crime in this country, or not? Again, men and women were sharply divided. Nearly two-thirds of women said yes (63 percent), while a slightly smaller percentage of men (61 percent) said no.
When respondents were asked whether they favored or opposed a ban on the nationwide sale of assault weapons, a majority (71 percent) said they were in favor. Again, men and women differed. ( Schmittroth, 2003)
In general however if we look at the long-term trend attitudes toward the regulation of firearms were remarkably stable over the last 40 years of the twentieth century, despite assassinations, rising rates of violent crime, and school shootings.
Factors that could account for the stability of these attitudes: First, gun control is a long-debated issue familiar to most people. Individuals attitudes toward guns are shaped by prior experiences with firearms, especially by an individuals exposure to guns while growing up and by the prominence of guns in the local community. These formative experiences may well fix peoples attitudes toward guns and gun control.
The stability of public attitudes toward gun control can be seen clearly in public reaction to the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999. Many gun control advocates expected that Littleton would increase support for stronger gun control measures, or at least for measures to restrict youth access to guns. The Littleton shootings attracted a tremendous amount of media and public attention. That media coverage and public attention, however, did not translate into additional support for gun control laws. Littleton did increase the salience and importance of crime and gun violence in the publics mind. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, respondents in public opinion polls became much more likely to mention crime in general or gun violence in particular as the most important problem facing the country.(Smith 2002) Although Littleton may have motivated the majority of the American public who already support gun control laws, it did not change peoples minds about how to address the problem of crime and gun violence. There is little indication that Littleton generally increased support for gun control in the short term and no sign that it did so after six months. The 1999 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings measured pre-and post-Littleton attitudes. Generally, fewer respondents were in favor of stricter gun control after Columbine that were before. For example, results from Harris poll show that 69 percents of respondents favored stricter gun control prior to Columbine compared with 63 percent post-Columbine. (Smith 1999) In an AP poll, when the question was asked one week prior to Columbine and again approximately four months after Columbine, results remained stable, with 56 percent pre- Columbine in favor of stricter gun control laws and 56 percent post-Columbine feeling the same way. The same AP poll showed a slight rise in those who felt better enforcement of existing gun laws would decrease gun violence, from 47 percent prior to Columbine to 49 percent in the aftermath of Columbine.
Littleton serves as a powerful example of how fixed Americans views of gun control rally are. Even a mass school shooting on live television did little to change peoples views on this issue.
If we look at a general profile of those who support gun control we see that women, residents of large cities and their suburbs, liberals, and Democrats are most likely to support general gun control measures, whereas men, residents of rural areas, conservatives, and Republicans are least likely to support such measures. People with higher levels of educational attainment also are more likely to support general gun control measures. Support does not vary by marital status, age, or income( Smith 2001)
The sources of public opinion on gun control were studied by Gary Kleck in his study conducted in 1996. In that study national survey data were combined with information about the cities in which urban respondents lived to determine whether support for gun control is increased by exposure to high crime rates, prior victimization, and fear of crime, or is a product of membership in social groups with cultures hostile to ownership and use of guns. Results indicate that support for gun permits is generally unrelated to crime-related variables but is heaviest among those social groups regarded as most hostile to gun ownership and its associated cultural traits. That is, support is stronger among liberals, higher-income persons, those with more schooling, Jews, and those who do not own guns or hunt. The results support the view that gun control support is more a product of culture conflict than a response to crime.
To test whether support for gun control is an instrumental response to crime, associations were measured between gun permit opinion and four city crime rates, three kinds of personal victimization experiences, and two measures of fear of crime. Of these nine crime measures, only one, fear of walking in one’s neighborhood, was significantly and positively related to support for gun permits. And even this association was not a robust one; it was significant only among women and only in some specifications of the models.
The robbery rate was the only crime that seemed to increase gun permit support, and even this was true only for women and African Americans. Thus these results suggest that high crime rates and prior victimization do not increase support for gun control among the general urban population. Indeed, higher burglary rates actually appear to depress gun control support, even after controlling for gun ownership.
It is possible that crime stimulates gun control support among policymakers even though it does not do so for their constituents in the general public. For example, legislators may support specific legislative proposals in response to highly publicized incidents of violence with guns. However, because there is generally no association between crime rates and news media publicity about crime (Garafolo, 1981 and Marsh, 1989), this would be perfectly compatible with the conclusion that higher crime rates do not generate support for gun control measures, even among policymakers. In other words, legislators respond to publicity about crime, but this publicity is unrelated to rates of crime and violence.
Instead of gun control support being seen as a response to crime, it would seem more useful to see it as the product of membership in culturally conflicting social groups. Gun control support is highest among better educated, higher income liberals who do not own guns or hunt (i.e., who are not tied to subcultures linked with legitimate gun use). Although analysis of an urban-only sample cannot establish urban-rural patterns, prior research has also found gun control support stronger among city dwellers and suburbanites ( Erskine, 1972; Smith, 1980). Thus gun control opinion is related to membership in many of the groups thought to have differing cultures concerning guns, hunting, modernism versus traditionalism, change-orientation versus status quo, internationalism versus localism, and so on. On the other hand, regional origins, gender, and affiliation with a Protestant denomination were unrelated to gun control opinions.
To sum up: most Americans oppose outright bans or severe limits on gun ownership. Moreover, a significant minority of Americans remain firmly opposed to many gun control policies, and opinions on gun control, whether for or against, tend to remain fixed over time. Regardless of how they feel about guns, Americans are unlikely to change their minds on the issue.
This may help explain why gun control policies have been slow to change, despite broad public support for tighter regulation of firearms. Although support for gun control is strong, it faces significant opposition, which has remained solid despite public events such as the Littleton shootings that some people thought would weaken pro-gun public opinion. The battle lines on gun control are well drawn and entrenched. It may be some time before there is significant movement on either side.
1. Erskine, H. (1972). The polls: Gun control. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 455-469.
2. Garafolo, J. (1981). Crime and the mass media. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 18, 319-350.
3. Kleck, Gary: Crime, culture conflict and the sources of support for gun control: a multilevel application of the general social surveys. (Special Issue: Public Opinion on Justice in the Criminal Justice System).1996
4. Marsh, H. L. (1989). Newspaper crime coverage in the U.S.: 1983-1988. Criminal Justice Abstracts, 21, 506-514.
5. Schmittroth, Linda : Gun Control: Restricting Rights or Protecting People Gale Group, Inc. 2003.
6. Smith, T. W. (1980). The 75% solution: An analysis of the structure of attitudes on gun control, 1959-1977. Journal of Criminal Law ; Criminology, 71, 300-316.
7. Smith, T. W. 1999 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings, Chicago, IL:NORC, 2000, Percentage of Public Ranking Guns and Crime as Most Important U.S. Problems/Issues Pre- and Post-Littleton.
8. Smith, Tom W : 2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings, University of Chicago, Dec 2001. Primary source: National Gun Policy survey, 1996-1999 and 2001 and General Social Survey, 1996-2000.
9. Smith, Tom, W. Public opinion about Gun Policies. (Public Perspectives). The Future of Children, Summer-Fall 2002 v12 i2 p155(9)
10. Webster, D.W. Vernick, J.S.: Support for new policies to regulate firearms.New England Journal of Medicine(September 17, 1998) 339(12): 813-18
Web 1. : Sourcebook – Index, 1
… Attitudes toward gun control, by demographic characteristics, United States, 2001:http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/1995/ind/PUBLIC_OPINION.Guns,_firear, accessed April 2004.
Web 2in a Relatively Issue-Less Election Year (So Far) Education and Health Care Top the List of Issues, Which People want the Government to address, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/ accessed april 2004
Web 3 The Gun Control Enigma http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll accessed April 2004.
Web 4 Large Majority Continues to Favor Stricter Gun Controls http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/ April 25 2001, accessed April 2004