April 19, 2000

A Year After Columbine Public Looks To Parents More Than Schools To Prevent Violence

Introduction and Summary

A year after the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, the vast majority of the public believes it is the responsibility of parents to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated. In fact, a plurality identifies poor parenting — not peer pressure or violence in the media — as the primary cause for school shootings, like the one at Columbine. Americans continue to support gun control, with nearly two-thirds saying such restrictions are more important than the rights of gun owners. But tougher gun laws are not regarded as a panacea, and just 6% believe such laws would prevent a recurrence of incidents like the one at Columbine.

The shootings at that suburban Denver high school continue to shape the way parents and non-parents alike view the issue of school violence. About seven-in-ten (71%) parents say the violence at Columbine has had at least some impact on their feelings about the safety of their children at school. And whether or not they have children, Americans overwhelmingly agree that parents are best able to prevent future Columbines. More than eight-in-ten (85%) place this responsibility on the shoulders of parents, against just 9% who say it rests with the schools.

Overall, parents express concern about their children’s safety at school. Only 40% believe their children are very safe at school, and more than one-third (37%) say schools that their children attend have upgraded security in the past year. Fully 17% of parents report there have been serious threats of violence at those schools.

The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,000 adults, including 283 parents, found that attitudes on gun control have generally remained unchanged in the year since the Columbine violence. By a solid 66%-to-29% majority, the public says controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting the right of Americans to own guns. This is similar to the 65% majority found in May 1999, in the immediate aftermath of Columbine. There also has been only slight movement on the question of whether to ban handguns. Currently, Americans are evenly split — 47% favor such a ban and 47% are opposed. In May 1999, 44% supported the ban and 50% were opposed.

It is clear that for many Americans gun control is but one remedy — and perhaps not even the most effective remedy — for preventing violence. While 41% believe that stricter gun laws would reduce violent crime by a great deal, 63% say that more jobs and community programs for young people would accomplish that objective. And a majority of the public (59%) says it is more important to enforce existing gun laws than to enact new statutes aimed at restricting weapons sales and improving gun safety.

The public’s ambivalence on gun-related questions is reflected in divisions over which party is better suited to handle this issue. Overall, Democrats hold a slight 36%-30% lead as doing a better job on gun control, but more than one-third of the public (34%) has no preference. The Democrats’ advantage on this issue has not changed significantly since last June, when they held a 42%-34% lead.

More Scrutiny of Troubled Youth

Asked about specific remedies for school violence, many Americans say more attention should be paid to children with anti-social attitudes. Fully six-in-ten believe that giving such children closer scrutiny would be more of an effective way to prevent shooting incidents than increasing school security (11%), passing stricter gun control laws (6%) or reducing violence in popular entertainment (13%).

Support for greater vigilance of this sort has grown in the past year; in April 1999, shortly after the Columbine incident, 49% endorsed paying more attention to kids’ anti-social attitudes and behaviors, 21% cited increasing school security, and 11% cited passing stricter gun control laws.

Attitudes have also changed in the last year on why such violent incidents occur. More than four in ten (42%) lay the blame on parents, compared to 36% in April 1999. One-quarter of the public (26%) cites violence in the media that children are exposed to, a decrease of eight percentage points from April 1999.

Overall, parents are split on what they think is the main reason why kids commit such violent acts — 35% think it is poor upbringing by parents, and 33% say it is the violence in the media that children are exposed to. Mothers and fathers also differ on this issue. Almost half of the fathers surveyed (46%) cite poor upbringing, compared to only one quarter (25%) of mothers. More than four-in-ten of the mothers (41%), on the other hand, point the finger at violence in the media. Relatively few parents attribute acts of violence to peer pressure (15%) or genetic or biological tendencies toward violence (3%).

The effects of Columbine are still being felt by parents and children in a number of ways. Only 40% of parents think their child is very safe at school, while five out of ten parents think their child is somewhat safe. One-third (34%) of parents say their child seems concerned about personal safety at school. More parents of schoolchildren age 12 to 17 (45%) report their child being concerned than do parents of schoolchildren age five to 11 (26%). Similarly, more parents of older children (25%) also report that they’ve heard of serious threats of violence involving children at their child’s school, compared to only 10% of parents with younger children.

Almost four-in-ten parents (37%) report that their child’s school has taken measures to ensure safety in the past year, like installing metal detectors, closed circuit TV cameras or hiring police or security guards. More parents of children age 12 to 17 say this occurs than parents of children age five to 11 (44%-30%).

The school shootings remain an important topic of conversation between parents and children. More than three-quarters (77%) of all parents and 85% of parents of children age 12-17 say they have had at least some discussion about school shootings with their children. In contrast, 41% of all parents have talked to their children about the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy at the center of an international custody battle, and 33% have discussed the 2000 presidential election campaign.

Gender Gap Remains

While support for gun control is strong across all major demographic groups, a gender gap persists on this issue. Women favor controlling gun ownership over protecting the rights of gun owners by an overwhelming 73%-to-22% margin. On balance, men share this view, though by a narrower margin — 59%-36%. The partisan divide is even more pronounced. A 77% majority of Democrats back gun control, compared to a bare majority (55%) of Republicans.

Voters are less inclined this year than last to punish members of Congress who oppose gun control. In July 1999, fully 55% said a member of Congress who voted against gun control should not be reelected, while 35% said such a member would deserve reelection. Today the voting public is much more evenly divided: 41% say members who oppose gun control should not be returned to office vs. 44% who say they should be reelected. The shift in opinion has been particularly sharp among women and Democrats.

The fact remains, however, that a vote in favor of gun control is a political plus for many members of Congress. Fully 60% of voters say that a lawmaker who backed gun control should be reelected, down slightly from the 69% who held this view last year. Only 25% say a member who has supported gun control shouldn’t be returned to office.

Heading into the 2000 elections, it is unclear at this point which political party — or presidential candidate — has the upper hand on the question of gun control. The Democrats maintain a slight edge, along with Al Gore. In a Pew survey released last month, 41% said the vice president could do a better job representing their views on gun control, 37% chose George W. Bush.

Opinion about the role of the National Rifle Association is largely unchanged in recent years. A plurality of Americans (42%) say the NRA has too much influence over gun control laws in this country, 17% say the organization has too little influence, and 28% say its influence is about right. Similarly, in December 1993, 45% said the NRA was too influential, 15% said it had too little influence and 27% thought it had about the right amount of influence over gun laws.

In a similar vein, the percentage of Americans who believe that more gun restrictions will help reduce violent crime in this country has not increased significantly in recent years. And the public places more faith in several other potential solutions. Roughly four-in-ten Americans (41%) say stricter gun control laws would reduce violent crime “a lot,” similar to the 39% who held this view in March 1994. More jobs and community programs for young people is a much more popular approach. Longer jail terms for violent criminals, as well as restrictions on the amount of violence shown on TV are endorsed by about half of the public (49% and 48%, respectively). Nearly as many (46%) say more police on the streets would help reduce violent crime.

Gonzalez Case Top Story

The long-running saga of Elian Gonzalez was once again the month’s top news story. Interest in this story has slipped slightly from January (39% following very closely) and February (37%), when it also led the monthly news indexes.

The stock market’s recent convulsions were closely followed by about one-in-five (19%) Americans. Surprisingly, interest in this story did not increase following the sharp declines April 14 in both the Dow Jones industrial average and the NASDAQ composite index. Those who were interviewed before the market plunge tuned in at about the same rate as those who were surveyed from April 14-16.

With the presidential primary season over, fewer Americans paid close attention to coverage of the campaign. Overall, about 18% say they followed election news very closely, down from 26% in both March and February. More Republicans (25%) showed strong interest than either Democrats (18%) or independents (13%).

The recent court ruling against the software company Microsoft failed to garner much attention. Just 13% say they paid very close attention to the judge’s decision in the high-profile case, about the same who followed progress of the antitrust trial in December 1999 (11%) and November 1998 (12%).