Gun Control: 'Only Modest Change' In Opinion Since Newtown Shootings

Dec 20, 2012
Originally published on December 21, 2012 9:25 am

"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, Conn.," the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported Thursday afternoon.

Pew's latest national survey of 1,219 adults was done Dec. 17-19 (Monday to Wednesday). So the Dec. 14 attack that took the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School was on most respondents' minds. Pew's Andrew Kohut tells All Things Considered that polling shows the Newtown attack "has drawn as much public attention as the entire presidential election at the end" of last year's campaign.

The post-Newtown poll showed that:

-- 49 percent of respondents agreed with the view that it's more important to control gun ownership than it is to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

-- 42 percent said the right of Americans to own guns is more important than gun control.

-- While this was the first time since President Obama took office that "significantly more" respondents make gun control a higher priority than the right to own guns, the shift was not dramatic. Following the July mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., "47 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights."

The new survey comes with a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points on each of those major results.

Pew's findings underscore what we noted on Saturday: that polling in the past has shown that public opinion won't necessarily shift much after mass shootings such as those in Newtown, Aurora, Tucson or on the campus of Virginia Tech University.

The modest change in opinion can be explained in large part, Kohut said, by the depth of most Americans' feelings on the issue. Eighty percent of respondents, he said, told Pew "I fell strongly about this."

"It's not easy to move strong opinions," Kohut added.

Also a factor: Just under half of those polled believe gun ownership does more to "protect people from crime" than it does to "put people's safety at risk," Pew reports. For many Americans, said Kohut, that's just "fundamental."

One exception to that general view: Pew found that 65 percent of those polled believed "allowing citizens to own assault weapons" makes the nation more dangerous, not safer.

More from Kohut is scheduled for today's broadcast of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-aired version of the interview to the top of this post.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has shifted public attitudes toward gun control, but only a little. That's the conclusion of a new poll out today from the Pew Research Center.

And director Andrew Kohut joins me to talk about what they found. Andy, welcome back.

ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be here.

BLOCK: Your poll was taken earlier this week, just a few days after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. And as you say, you find a modest tilt in the public opinion but not much.

KOHUT: Yeah, 49 percent said it's more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun owner rights, 42 percent. That's the first time over the past four years that we've had a plurality, a clear plurality, saying controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun owner rights.

BLOCK: So, 49-42, but if you compare that with before Barack Obama took office, you actually see there's more support now for the right to own guns, less support for gun control.

KOHUT: Yes, we did 10 surveys over the course of the period 1993 through 2008. And in every one of those surveys, a majority of the people, we said, said it was more important to control gun owner rights. The last time we did it, pre-Obama, was April of 2008 and we had a 58 to 32 percent majority saying more important to control gun ownership.

Obama came to office, the Democrats took control of the Congress and public opinion changed.

BLOCK: And, Andy, what in the other questions that you asked helped explain where the public is right now on gun control?

KOHUT: Well, we find that most people have very strong attitudes about this question of controlling guns or protecting gun owner rights. Eighty percent of the people who gave us an answer, one way or another, said I feel strongly about this. But the second thing is - and this is an element in the robustness of support for gun owner rights - is a 48 to 37 percent plurality saying that gun ownership does more to protect the American people than to put American lives at risk.

BLOCK: It's interesting, though, Andy, because when you honed in on certain weapons and ammunition, the numbers do shift in interesting ways. Most Americans say they would not support banning handguns or semiautomatic weapons. But they would support a ban on bullets that explode, that penetrate bulletproof vests or on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

KOHUT: Majorities of Americans expressed support for both of those reforms. But on more basic things, like handgun control, there's very little movement. And, you know, we're not the only poll to show this. The ABC/Washington Post survey earlier this week also found that just a modest increase in people saying - since this summer - saying that there should be stronger laws that control guns. I think 51 to 54 percent.

BLOCK: Within these numbers, Andy, on either support for or opposition to gun rights, there is a sizable gender gap and also a sizable racial gap.

KOHUT: Very large - gender divide, 57 percent of women say controlling guns is more important. But 51 percent of men say, no, protecting gun owner rights is more important. We see on race, a majority of whites say its protecting gun ownership. But 68 percent of blacks say, no, it's more important to control gun ownership.

BLOCK: Another question, Andy, had to do with assault weapons. And by a margin of 3-to-1, people said they think assault weapons make the country more dangerous.

KOHUT: That's right. There's a strong view on that. But when we ask about banning semiautomatic weapons - and assault weapons are a class of that kind weapon - on balance, a small plurality say no. So even on the issue of semiautomatic weapons there's not exactly a groundswell to say: Let's take them out of play.

BLOCK: Andrew Kohut directs the Pew Research Center. Andy, thanks again.

KOHUT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.