Support For Gun Control Waning In Wake Of Parkland Shooting
Support for gun control spiked in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting but it appears to be returning to more normal levels, and that's bad news for gun control advocates.
The Huffington Post is noticing something that may well have been inevitable, namely that public support for gun control laws, which spiked after the February 14th shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida appears to be waning:
The school shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year launched a new generation of gun control activists, inspired walkouts and marches, and sparked the most substantial ― and long-lasting ― shift in public opinion on guns in recent years. The appetite for gun control appears to have tapered off in the following weeks, but some surveys indicate that some changes in public opinion could endure.
In the more than two months since that shooting, HuffPost and YouGov haveconductedfivesurveystracking Americans’ views on guns. The results show a burst of support for gun reform in the two weeks after the shooting, followed by a gradual reversion to the mean. Once-heightened concerns about gun violence have tapered back to previous levels, as has a desire for stricter gun laws and a belief that gun restrictions can be passed without violating Second Amendment rights.
A few changes in thought, however, seem to have stuck.
The percentage of Americans who believe it’s politically possible to pass gun laws has dropped several points since its high in late February, but it’s still higher than it was in the aftermath of last year’s massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas.
In the most recent survey, one-fifth of Americans also chose gun policies as one of the two issues they found most important. That remains a noticeable, if modest, uptick from the 13 percent who chose it as a priority following the shooting in Sutherland Springs. Other polling since the Parkland shooting also suggested gun control was carrying greater-than-usual prominence on the campaign trail, although it’s unclear how much of that energy will remain until November.
That public opinion shifted at all in the wake of the shooting was striking. It’s even more striking that it lasted as long as it did. Last year’s shootings, by contrast, appeared to have little effect on Americans’ views about guns.
Another poll from Gallup found that the share of Americans mentioning guns or gun control as the nation’s most important problem dropped from 13 percent in March to 6 percent in April ― a downtick that nevertheless leaves it as one of the highest-ranked national issues. In a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour Marist poll, a slim 53 percent majority of Democratic voters said guns will be a major factor for them in November, down 21 points since February.
This chart shows the changes that have taken place in the HuffPo/YouGov polling on gun control both before and after the Parkland shooting: (click to enlarge)
In the past, mass shooting events have been shown to have little impact on either gun control policy, the legislative agenda in all but a handful of states, or election, The most recent example of that can be found in what happened after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October of last year. This was the worst such event in American history, and in the initial aftermath of the attack, polling showed increased numbers in support of certain gun control measures. Despite this, Congress took no action even on issues as seemingly straightforward as banning bump stocks. By the time we were on the eve of the Parkland shooting, public support for gun control measures, and the importance of the issue in the minds of voters had largely returned to historical norms. The same thing seems to be happening now as we approach the three-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting.
We saw a similar phenomenon in the wake of the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the immediate aftermath of that horrible event that memorably brought tears to the eyes of President Obama, the images that showed not only the number of victims but also the fact that so many of them were very young children led many Americans to tell pollsters that they supported stronger gun control laws. Even in the wake of that horrific attack, though, polls indicated that gun control was not a high priority issue even among those who strongly supported such measures. As time passed and the memory of what happened at Sandy Hook and other similar mass shootings faded, the numbers began to fade. Three months after Sandy Hook, for example, polling showed that gun control was slipping as a priority for voters and, within a year after the shooting, support for most gun control measures had fallen off to the levels they were at prior to the shooting. By the second anniversary of the shooting, polling showed that more Americans supported protecting gun rights than passing new gun control measures. One year later, near 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, this is what is likely to happen this time as well.
This all brings to mind something Kevin Drum that just after the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which was written in the wake of Sandy Hook:
How did this happen even though, as liberals remind us endlessly, 90 percent of the American public supports background checks? Because 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’ve said before, it’s possible that this time, things will be different. The student activists who have stepped forward in the wake of that event, and the adults who support them, have been far more effective at keeping the issue alive than activists have been in the past. Additionally, the fact that they have events similar to the March 24th nationwide protests planned for later in the year suggests that they might be able to keep this issue in the forefront of voters minds much longer than we’ve seen in the past. Whether it will all have an impact on voting behavior, or, looking further down the line, on the action that politicians take at the local, state, or Federal level, though, is a different matter. Historically that has not been the case, and the fact that poll numbers are showing that voter concern about the issue is declining is not a good sign for their cause, and that means that they’re going to have an uphill battle ahead of them presuming they are going to fight at all.