Will Public Opinion Turn Against Assault Weapons?

Americans favor certain kinds of gun control measures, but they’re somewhat divided on the most effective ones.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Guns

At least 17 people have been killed in the year’s 8th school shooting. The gunman who attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was armed with an AR-15, as were the shooters in Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino, Sutherland Springs, and Las Vegas. Of course, the similarities don’t end there: As usual, this slaughter will be met not with real policy initiatives designed to reduce gun violence, but with the same thoughts and prayers that followed other shootings and, once again, failed to stop the next one. Thoughts and prayers are normal human responses to senseless suffering, but when they are not combined with steps which are very much within our power, they become a hollow, even perverse, incantation. What begins as a worthy sentiment—“I’m thinking about you”—gains, over the course of so many related tragedies, a silent but unmistakable addendum: “…but I won’t do anything to help you.”

In wondering whether the American public, in contrast to its representatives, is interested in solving this problem, I came across this helpful Upshot matrix tracking both the most effective policies (as measured in a poll of experts) and the most popular ones. Some of the most popular ideas—those with support nearing 90 percent, such as universal background checks and prohibitions on gun sales to violent criminals—are also among those deemed by experts to be the most effective.

Another of the most effective policy steps, according to the experts, would be an assault rifle ban. The polling data collected by the Times indicated that this was also a relatively popular idea, with 67 percent support. Is that an unusually high number? I notice that it comes from a poll conducted between June 17-20, 2016—immediately following the Orlando nightclub shooting, which briefly held the record for deadliest mass shooting until Las Vegas. (Similarly, an NPR/Ipsos poll taken shortly after Las Vegas found widespread support for a ban on “assault-style weapons.”) But research on public opinion about gun control has found that public opinion can temporarily swing in the wake of a mass shooting. As a 2017 study found: “There was a spike in support for making firearms laws more strict in December 2012, which suggests that the Sandy Hook shooting may have increased public support for gun control. However, within a year, that spike in support regressed to the steady, average level of support seen throughout the 2000s.” Gallup, which has sporadically polled on a similar question about banning assault rifles, records a drop in support from 59 percent in 2000 to just 48 percent in 2017.

According to the 2017 study, “the Sandy Hook shooting did not alter mass public opinion about semiautomatic weapons,” and long-term trends indicate that “even the many other, high-profile mass shootings in recent American history, such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, failed to noticeably alter mass public opinion about gun control.” If there’s any good news in this stubborn trend, it’s that Americans generally do favor stronger background checks (rated 6.6 out of 10 for effectiveness), even if they’re more skeptical of an assault weapons ban (rated 6.8). But with Congress and the White House under GOP control, they’re unlikely to get either. Instead, there will just be more thoughts, more prayers, and inevitably, more Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schools.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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