December 20, 2012

After Newtown, Modest Change in Opinion about Gun Control

Most Say Assault Weapons Make Nation More Dangerous

Overview

The public’s attitudes toward gun control have shown only modest change in the wake of last week’s deadly shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Currently, 49% say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 42% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

This marks the first time since Barack Obama took office that more Americans prioritize gun control than the right to own guns. Opinion was evenly divided in July, following a shooting at a Colorado movie theater. At that time, 47% said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 46% said it was more important to protect gun rights.

However, support for gun control remains lower than before Obama took office. In April 2008, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership; just 37% prioritized protecting gun rights.

As in the past, there are wide partisan and demographic differences in opinions about gun control. Majorities of men, whites and Republicans say it is more important to protect gun rights. By contrast, most women, blacks, Democrats and those in the Northeast prioritize controlling gun ownership. In other regions, opinion is divided.

There are deeply held opinions on both sides when it comes to the choice between controlling gun ownership and protecting gun rights: 42% strongly believe it is more important to control gun ownership, while 37% strongly feel it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 17-19 among 1,219 adults, finds a higher percentage saying that gun ownership in this country does more to protect people from crime (48%) than to put their safety at risk (37%).

However, about two-thirds (65%) think that allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country more dangerous. Just 21% say that permitting these types of weapons makes the country safer.

There is widespread public opposition to a ban on handguns: Two-thirds (67%) oppose banning the possession of handguns, except by law enforcement officers. Far more favor banning bullets designed to explode or penetrate bullet-proof vests (56%) and high capacity ammunition clips (53%). Opinion is divided over whether to ban semi-automatic guns – 44% favor such a ban, while 49% are opposed.

Americans also remain split over the broader significance of shootings like the one in Connecticut: 47% say they are just the isolated acts of troubled individuals, while 44% say they reflect broader problems in society. That is little changed from a survey conducted last weekend, but far more say that such shootings reflect broader societal problems than did so after shootings in Colorado this summer and in Tucson, Ariz. in Jan. 2011. (For more, see “Public Divided over What Newtown Signifies,” Dec. 17, 2012.)

When those who point to broader problems are asked to describe, in their own words, what the tragedy reflects in society, 46% cite the nation’s social climate, such as the breakdown of families and parental failures, while 30% cite issues relating to mental health or mental illness. About one-in-five (22%) mention guns or gun policy, which is similar to reactions after the 2011 Tucson shooting and the shooting at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

A concurrent study of the conversation about Newtown on Twitter and blogs conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds far more discussion of gun policy following this event than after the Tucson shooting. In the social media conversation, calls for stricter gun control measures exceed defenses of current gun laws by more than two-to-one.  (For more, see “In Social Media and Opinion Pages, Newtown Sparks Calls for Gun Reform,” Dec. 20, 2012.)

No Partisan Advantage

The survey on attitudes toward gun control finds that neither party has an advantage on the issue. About as many say the Republican Party (27%) as the Democratic Party (28%) can do a better job of reflecting their views on gun control. A relatively high percentage (27%) volunteer that both parties can do about the same (13%) or that neither party can do better (14%). This is similar to 2004, when opinion also was divided.

Fewer Americans (36%) say the National Rifle Association (NRA) has too much influence over gun control laws than did so in 2000 (42%) and 1993 (45%). Nearly half (47%) says either that the organization has too little influence (19%) or the right amount of influence (28%).

Wide Partisan Gap over Gun Control

By a seven-point margin, the public currently says it is more important to control gun ownership (49%) than to protect the right of Americans to own guns (42%). There are substantial demographic and partisan differences over the issue, and most of the patterns of opinion on this question are little changed from past surveys.

Republicans and Democrats are on opposite sides of the issue: About seven-in-ten (69%) Republicans say protecting gun rights is more important, while about the same proportion of Democrats (72%) say gun control is more important. Independents are divided (47% gun rights, 42% gun control).

The gender gap also is stark: Women prioritize controlling ownership over gun rights by a 24-point margin, while men prioritize gun rights by a 10-point margin. Racial differences also are striking, as African-Americans overwhelmingly say gun control is more important than gun rights (68% to 24%), while opinion among whites tilts in favor of gun rights (51% to 42%).

Those with post-graduate degrees stand out from those with less education in their support for gun control, with 66% prioritizing gun control while just 26% say protecting gun rights is more important. Other educational groups are more evenly divided in their opinions.

Young people (18-29 year olds) continue to support gun control over gun rights (55% vs. 36%), while those 30-64 are more divided on the question. Notably, older Americans (ages 65+) have shifted over the last several months; today they prioritize gun control over gun rights (54% vs. 34%), but were more divided earlier in the year.

Northeasterners continue to stand out compared to other regions of the country, supporting gun control over gun rights by about a two-to-one margin (65% vs. 29%), while those in other regions are more evenly split on this question.

More Say Gun Ownership Protects People from Crime

Overall, a slim plurality (48%) thinks gun ownership in this country does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime, while 37% say it does more to put people’s safety at risk; 16% offer no opinion. Demographic and partisan divides on this question are similar to those seen on the more general question of gun rights versus gun control. Majorities of men, whites and Republicans say gun ownership does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime. By contrast, most Democrats and blacks say gun ownership does more to put people’s safety at risk; women are divided (40% protect people from crime vs. 43% put people’s safety at risk).

While a plurality sees gun ownership as doing more to protect people from crime, there are broad concerns over a specific type of gun: assault weapons. By about three-to-one, more say allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country more dangerous (65%) rather than safer (21%). Broad majorities of Democrats, blacks and women say assault weapons make the country more dangerous; most men and whites feel this way as well, though by a slimmer margins. Opinion is divided among Republicans (41% safer, 50% more dangerous.

Those who give priority either to protecting gun rights or controlling ownership on the more general question do not always offer one-sided responses to other gun questions. For example, among those who say it is more important to protect gun rights, as many say assault weapons make the country more dangerous (40%) as safer (41%).

Mixed Support for Gun Control Proposals

The public offers a mixed reaction to four specific gun control proposals tested in the survey. Majorities support banning bullets that explode or are designed to penetrate bullet-proof vests, and banning high-capacity ammunition clips. However, the public is divided over banning semi-automatic guns and a broad majority opposes banning handguns for non-uniformed civilians. Reflecting the public’s mixed reaction to different types of measures, very few favor all four proposals (13%) or oppose them all (14%).

By a 56% to 36% margin, most favor banning bullets that explode or can penetrate bullet-proof vests. Partisan divides on this question are modest, with 62% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans in favor. Even among those who prioritize gun rights over controlling ownership, 47% favor this proposal, while 43% are opposed.

A majority also backs banning high-capacity ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 bullets (53% favor, 42% oppose).

A ban against semi-automatic guns receives less support: 44% favor this proposal, 49% oppose it. About two-thirds (68%) of those who prioritize gun rights would oppose such a ban, while 61% of those who prioritize gun control would favor it.

The least popular option of the four tested is banning the possession of handguns except by law enforcement officers: 67% oppose this measure, just 28% favor it. Even those who
prioritize gun control over gun rights are divided on a handgun ban (44% favor, 50% oppose).

Who Owns Guns?

About a third (35%) of Americans say that there are guns, rifles or pistols in their home. The proportion of the public reporting they own firearms has remained about the same for more than a decade.

More men (42%) than women (27%) report having guns in their household. And gun ownership is far more prevalent among whites than blacks; 42% of whites have guns in their homes, compared with just 16% of blacks.

Gun ownership is strongly correlated with both region and community type. Just 21% of Northeasterners say there is a gun in their home, compared with 38% of Midwesterners and 45% of Southerners. Half (50%) of those living in rural areas say they have a firearm in their home; that compares with 36% of those living in the suburbs and 26% of those in urban areas.

Gun ownership also differs by party, with nearly half of Republicans (49%)—and just a quarter (25%) of Democrats—reporting that there is a gun in their household.

Views of Those Who Own Guns and Those Who do Not

About two-thirds (65%) of gun owners say it is more important to protect gun rights than to control ownership (27%). The balance of opinion is reversed among those who do not have a gun in the household (64% control ownership, 26% protect gun rights).

Gun owners offer strong support for the idea that gun ownership in this country does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime (68%) rather than putting people’s safety at risk (18%).

But half of those with a gun in the household (50%) say allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country more dangerous for citizens, fewer (34%) say this makes this country safer.

When it comes to politics, more gun owners say the Republican Party (37%) rather than the Democratic Party (22%) could do a better job reflecting their views about gun control. Those without a gun in the household favor the Democratic Party 34% to 21%.

And while 45% of non-gun owners say the National Rifle Association has too much influence over gun control laws in this country, only 25% of gun owners say this. A plurality of gun owners say the NRA has the right amount of influence (42%) over gun laws, while 20% say too little.

Cite this publication: “After Newtown, Modest Change in Opinion about Gun Control.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 20, 2012) http://www.people-press.org/2012/12/20/after-newtown-modest-change-in-opinion-about-gun-control/, accessed on July 23, 2014.