April 30, 2009

Public Takes Conservative Turn on Gun Control, Abortion

Americans Now Divided Over Both Issues

Overview

Public attitudes on a pair of contentious national issues – gun control and abortion – have moved in a more conservative direction over the past year. In both cases, the changes have been driven in part by relatively large shifts among men, while opinions among women have not changed very much.

For the first time in a Pew Research survey, nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as a year ago, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership while 37% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 31-April 21 among 1,521 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, also finds public opinion about abortion more closely divided than it has been in several years. Currently, 46% say abortion should be legal in most cases (28%) or all cases (18%); 44% believe that abortion should be illegal in most (28%) or all cases (16%). Since the mid-1990s, majorities have consistently favored legal abortion, with the exception of an August 2001 survey by ABC News/Washington Post.

The proportion saying that abortion should be legal in all or most cases has declined to 46% from 54% last August. The decline in support for legal abortion has come entirely in the share saying abortion should be legal in most cases (from 37% to 28%); 18% say abortion should be legal in all cases, which is virtually unchanged from last August (17%). Currently, 44% say abortion should be illegal in most (28%) or all cases (16%), up slightly since last August (41%).

More Men Back Gun Rights

A widening gender gap is now apparent on both abortion and gun control. A year ago, a narrow majority of men (51%) said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 45% said it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Today, by 57% to 38%, men say protecting gun rights is more important.

By contrast, 60% of women say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 33% see protecting gun rights as more important. In April 2008, 64% of women said controlling gun ownership was more important compared with 30% who placed greater importance on protecting the right to own guns.

The balance of opinion among independents has changed substantially over the past year. In April 2008, a majority of independents (56%) said it was more important to control gun ownership; currently, independents are divided, with 48% saying it is more important to protect gun rights and 45% saying it is more important to control gun ownership.

Support for gun rights has increased by 11 points in the Midwest, nine points in the South and seven points in the West; in all three regions, opinion is now evenly divided over whether it is more important to protect gun rights or control gun ownership. By contrast, there has been virtually no change among those living in the East, where a substantial majority (63%) continues to say that controlling gun ownership is the greater priority.

Gun Ownership and Gun Control

As might be expected, people who say they have guns in their home are much more supportive of gun rights than are those who do not own guns. Overall, a third of Americans – including 42% of men and 25% of women – say they have a gun, rifle or pistol in their home.

By a wide margin (68% to 28%), gun owners say it is more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership. The much larger share that does not have a gun in their home (63% of the public) places greater priority on controlling gun ownership by 63% to 31%.

There are substantial gender differences in views about gun control among gun owners and non-owners alike. Fully three-quarters of men who say they have a gun in their home (75%) believe it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership; a much smaller majority of women gun owners agree (57%). Similarly, most men who do not have a gun in their home (53%) say it is more important to control gun ownership. But an even higher percentage of women who are not gun owners (69%) place a greater priority on controlling gun ownership.

Abortion Support Slips

Currently, 43% of men say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 46% say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. In August 2008, a greater proportion of men said that abortion should be legal than illegal (by 53% to 42%).

The change among women has been more modest – 49% believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, down from 54% last August.

People older than 50 – both men and women – express less support for legal abortion than they did in August 2008. Just 40% of men older than 50 say abortion should be legal in most or all cases compared with 53% last summer. Support for legal abortion among women older than 50 has fallen from 53% to 45%.

There has been little change in opinions among women younger than 50: 53% say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, which is largely unchanged from August (55%). Support for abortion has declined since last April among men under age 50 (from 53% then to 45% currently).

Abortion Opinions: A Closer Look

Between August and late October 2008, the proportion supporting legal abortion ranged from 57% (in mid-October) to 53% (in late October), before declining to 46% currently. Though opinion among some subgroups varied significantly across those surveys, some trends are apparent, aside from the falloff in support among men.

There has been notable decline in the proportion of independents saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases; majorities of independents favored legal abortion in August and the two October surveys, but just 44% do so today. In addition, the proportion of moderate and liberal Republicans saying abortion should be legal declined between August and late October (from 67% to 57%). In the current survey, just 43% of moderate and liberal Republicans say abortion should legal in most or all cases.

Among religious groups, support for abortion has steadily declined since August among white mainline Protestants (from 69% then to 54% currently). And just 23% of white evangelical Protestants now favor legal abortion, down from 33% in August and mid-October and 28% in late October.

The change has been less pronounced among white non-Hispanic Catholics: In August, 51% said that abortion should be legal in most or all cases; in both October surveys, 55% favored legal abortion. In the current survey, 49% of white non-Hispanic Catholics say that abortion should be legal while 42% believe it should be illegal.

Cite this publication: “Public Takes Conservative Turn on Gun Control, Abortion.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 30, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/04/30/public-takes-conservative-turn-on-gun-control-abortion/, accessed on July 23, 2014.