Poll Shows Increased Support For Gun Control Measures, But Will It Last?
In the wake of the back-to-back shootings in Texas and Ohio, a new poll shows increased support for some gun control measures. But we've been here before.
With the twin shooting incidents in El Paso and Dayton still fresh in the public mind, a new poll shows what appears to be broad support for several types of gun control laws, but it’s unclear if it will lead to action at the Federal level:
Most Republicans would support legislation banning assault-style weapons, a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found Wednesday — a finding that contradicts President Donald Trump’s claim earlier the same day that there’s “no political appetite” for such restrictions.
The poll found that nearly 70 percent of all voters would back such a ban. Support for an assault-weapons ban was higher, at 86 percent, among Democrats, who have been pushing for new restrictions on the firearms in the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend.
Republicans typically are more reticent to support new gun restrictions, and Trump campaigned in 2016 on his strong support for the Second Amendment. But the poll found that 55 percent of GOP voters were comfortable with banning assault weapons, and 54 percent said they would support stricter gun laws more generally. Ninety percent said they would back universal background checks for gun sales.
Only 23 percent of all voters oppose an assault weapons ban, the poll found.
The poll was conducted Aug. 5-7, in the immediate aftermath of two mass shootings. A lone gunman opened fire Saturday at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people. Then, early Sunday morning, another gunman murdered nine people in Dayton, Ohio.
In the past, support for strengthening gun laws has spiked in surveys from POLITICO/Morning Consult and other pollsters after mass shootings. Support typically recedes in the weeks after the attacks, though many of the measures being proposed in the wake of this weekend’s shootings remain broadly — and, in some cases, overwhelmingly — popular even outside these temporal surges.
Overall, 73 percent of voters support stricter gun laws, the poll shows — up from 67 percent in the spring of 2018. The remaining 27 percent oppose stricter gun laws. Majorities of Democrats (91 percent), Republicans (54 percent) and independents (70 percent) support stricter gun laws.
Voters almost unanimously want mandatory universal background checks on gun purchasers. More than 91 percent support requiring background checks for all gun sales. Only 5 percent of voters oppose background checks.
While Trump poured cold water Wednesday on a possible assault weapons ban, he said he was optimistic background-check legislation could reach his desk, despite past congressional inaction on the issue.
“There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks. And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before,” Trump said. “I think both Republican[s] and Democrat[s] are getting close to a bill on — to doing something with background checks.”
But a number of other proposed measures are also very popular, the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows: 89 percent of voters want to block gun sales to people who have been reported as dangerous to law enforcement by mental health providers. Only 6 percent of voters oppose those restrictions.
Eighty-four percent of voters want to prevent people convicted of violent misdemeanors from purchasing guns. A similar percentage, 83 percent, support limiting gun purchases to those 21 and older. Eighty percent think there should be a mandatory three-day waiting period before someone can take home a gun. And 72 percent support banning high-capacity magazines.
While this last poll may give some hope to advocates for gun control, it’s worth noting that voters saying that gun policy is important to them in deciding whether to support a candidate applies to virtually all demographic groups, including those that are less inclined to support gun control measures. Additionally, as I’ve noted in the past, we’ve seen increases in perceived support for gun control measures after other mass shooting incidents only to find that this increase in support is short-lived and that it ends up having little impact at the policy level and almost no impact on the outcome of elections.
For example, in the wake of the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which has led to a wave of political activism on the part of young people, we saw polling that showed strong support for increased gun control, including measures such as enhanced background checks and a ban on so-called “assault weapons.” That support waned fairly quickly, though, and polling in both April and May of last year showed support waning. While the Florida shooting did result in the passage of some measures, such as new laws in Florida that made it easier to take guns away from people who pose a threat to others, and moves to increase the minimum age to purchase a rifles to 21, there were no significant moves on the national level and little indication from exit polling that gun control issues played a big role in the outcome of the midterm elections.
Additionally, polling indicated increased support for certain gun control measures in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017 that resulted in the death of 59 people and more than eight hundred injured, making it the worse such event in American history. Despite this, there was no movement on the issue in Congress on even the seemingly straightforward idea of banning bump stocks, the devices which allow semi-automatic weapons to act as if they are fully automatic. Ultimately, it took the Trump Administration until December 2018 to issue an administrative ruling banning bump stocks that may or may not survive a future court challenge.
We saw the same thing happen after the shooting in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the immediate aftermath of the attack that resulted in the death of 27, including many young children, many Americans voiced support for stricter gun control laws. Even in the wake of that horrific tragedy, though, it was clear from those same polls that gun control was not a high priority issue even when it came to issues such as stricter background checks or banning so-called “assault weapons.” Inevitably, as time passed and the memory of Sandy Hook or other similar mass shooting events faded into memory, the polls showed support for stricter gun control began to fade. Within three months of Sandy Hook, for example, polling was already showing that gun control was slipping as a priority for voters. Within a year after the shooting, support for most gun control measures had fallen back levels they were at prior to the shooting. By the second anniversary of Sandy Hook, polling indicated that more Americans supported protecting gun rights than passing new gun control measures. By the time of the third anniversary of the tragedy, polling showed a majority of Americans opposing a ban on the type of weapon used in the Sandy Hook shooting, If history is any guide, then this is what is likely to happen this time as well. Indeed, as more than one political analyst has noted, if the deaths of more than 20 first graders wasn’t going to lead to changes in American gun laws nothing will.
All of this brings to mind something Kevin Drum wrote in the wake of the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which was put before the Senate mere months after the Sandy Hook shooting That bill would have expanded background checks and purported to close other loopholes in the background check system, It also happened to be an issue that enjoyed at the time, and continues to enjoy, widespread public support even among Republicans, conservatives, and gun owners:
about 80 percent of those Americans think it sounds like a reasonable idea but don’t really care much. I doubt that one single senator will suffer at the polls in 2014 for voting against Manchin-Toomey.
Gun control proposals poll decently all the time. But the plain truth is that there are only a small number of people who feel really strongly about it, and they mostly live in urban blue districts already. Outside of that, pro-gun control opinion is about an inch deep. This is a classic case where poll literalism leads you completely astray. Without measuring intensity of feeling, that 90 percent number is meaningless.
I made a similar observation at the time:
Even at the height of the post-Newtown political push, only 6% of Americans considered gun control the most important problem facing the nation. That’s a far cry from the vast majority of voters who say that they support the various gun control measures that have been advocated over the past four months.
This isn’t the first indication that gun control is a low intensity issue among American voters. Back in January, just one month after Newtown, a similar Gallup poll showed the same results that we see in this month’s release. At that time, I predicted that it would be difficult for gun control advocates to get the most ambitious parts of their agenda through even the Senate, but I thought at the time that at least something would be passed. In part, I thought this because it seemed as though the post-Newtown attention paid to the issue was going to make it inevitable and that a low-priority issue like background checks would be something that Congress could pass to make it appear that they’re doing something, even though in reality the Manchin/Toomey bill would have done little to stop the massacres that have garnered much attention over the years. As it turned out, the politics of the issue were far more complicated, and public intensity on the issue of gun control was far less than many thought it might be after the events of Newtown.
Once you understand where the politics of gun control actually stand, the behavior of Republicans and red state Democrats becomes completely understandable.
As I have said, before, it’s possible that this time will be different, that the shock of two mass shootings so close in time together will lead to increased political pressure that causes Congress to act on politically popular measures like enhanced background checks and other measures that might actually play a helpful role in stopping mass shootings rather than largely symbolic mesures that won’t really address the problem and may not withstand court scrutiny. If history is any guide, though, we’ll talk about doing things until the next big thing happens, as it inevitably will, at which point public attention will again be diverted and support for gun control will return to historic norms.