A majority of Americans now support tougher laws regulating gun sales, according to new Gallup polling data released this week. In a year marked by daily mass shootings, 55 percent of Americans say they would like gun laws to be stricter than they are now—a notable increase of 8 percentage points from last year. The survey also showed a drop in the number of people who support less strict gun laws, Gallup reported.
The new polling results come just weeks after the deaths of nine people in a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and four months after the massacre of African American parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. While past polling trends have generally indicated that public support for gun control tends to subside as the most recent mass shootings recede from memory, the new results suggest a different trend may be taking over — one in which an increasing number of Americans, including gun owners, are coming to the realization that our current gun laws not only fail to protect the public, but actually put us in harm’s way.
According to Gallup, in the past 12 months the number of people who support stricter laws for gun sales has jumped by 8 percentage points, while the number of people who said they believe current gun laws are adequate and should remain as they are dropped by several percentage points. Even more interesting is that, despite the picture painted by lobbyists and conservative lawmakers, the number of those who support less strict gun laws has also dropped.
Of course, year-to-year variation in public support for gun control isn’t exactly new, but the sudden convergence of opinion across all three categories — those who support gun control, those who feel it’s already effective, and those who favor less gun control — is a noteworthy trend that may signal a more fundamental shift in Americans’ opinions about gun control. With mass shootings becoming the norm and American communities taking turns dealing with the devastating fallout, public support for addressing gun violence in our country may have finally reached a tipping point — tragedy, it seems, is taking its toll.
“In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 […] 58 percent of Americans said they were in favor of stricter laws on gun sales,” Gallup wrote in their report, explaining that while that percentage decreased slightly in the months following the tragedy, as media coverage began to wane, it never did dip back to the pre-Sandy Hook numbers. This past week, the stats saw another similar jump, following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. “The latest increase, from the Gallup Crime poll conducted October 7-11, came in the days after the most recent high-profile mass shooting, at a community college in Oregon.”
Even more telling than the overall rise in support for stricter gun sale laws— which can be influenced by shifts in partisan demographics (i.e. more Americans leaning Democratic or Independent) — was the increase in support among gun owners themselves. From 2014 to 2015, the share of gun owners who favored stricter gun laws jumped by 6 percentage points (from 30 percent to 36 percent), and as The Washington Post found in a recent report, those gun owners are disappointed that their voices are no longer represented by the National Rifle Association.
Signs of change
The new Gallup figures are just one of many recent indicators of the country’s growing support for safer gun laws. While Gallup’s survey focused on Americans’ overall views on laws regulating gun sales, polling on specific laws has returned even more favorable results. An astounding 93 percent of the American public, including 90 percent of Republican voters, more than 80 percent of gun owners and more than 70 percent of NRA households support expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales (currently, the law only requires background checks by federally licensed firearms dealers, leaving major loopholes that are clearly linked to gun violence).
Moreover, some experts say that a long-term, overall shift towards more public support for gun control is inevitable due to the nation’s changing demographics. “The core of the NRA’s support comes from white, rural and relatively less educated voters,” Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law, wrote in a Monday op-ed for The Washington Post. “This demographic is currently influential in politics but clearly on the wane.” In August, the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of blacks and 75 percent of Hispanics think gun control is a more important issue than gun rights, compared with 40 percent of whites. “Racial minorities are soon to be a majority, and they are the nation’s strongest supporters of strict gun laws,” wrote Winkler, the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen the change in American attitudes towards guns reflected in pop culture, much like what we saw with support for same-sex marriage and so many other social issues before it. Recently, shows like “Blackish” and “Saturday Night Live” have taken on the issue of gun violence, making powerful points about gun control through comedy. Even celebrities are joining the call for safer gun laws, with Kim Kardashian West recently making a passionate, unsolicited appeal for background checks to her more than 35 million Twitter followers. Beyonce, Jessica Alba, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, and Jamie Foxx are just a few of the other celebrities who’ve used their voices to call for stricter gun laws.
Gun violence prevention has also emerged as a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary contest, taking center stage at the first Democratic debate last week with Hillary Clinton coming out strong in support of tighter gun laws and Bernie Sanders finding himself under attack for his more lax stance on guns. Clinton has made gun control a central issue of her campaign, calling for a “national movement” to take on the National Rifle Association. And voters appear to back her up: Recent CNN polling shows that Clinton does better on the issue than her Democratic presidential candidate peers. At the same time, there is also increasing public backlash against candidates who side with the gun lobby and use their talking points (think Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” after the shooting in Oregon). Suddenly it has become an issue that the candidates on the wrong side don’t want to discuss.
For years, the country has watched massacre after massacre unfold before our eyes, asking ourselves after each one, what’s it going to take to get something done? How many more children have to die in school shootings? How many more places, from malls to movie theaters to churches, have to be turned into graphic testimony to a ‘new normal’? How many more people do we have to bury than the 89 who are killed with bullets in our nation every day?
But we’re learning now that we have been asking ourselves the wrong questions all along. No single incident, no matter how horrible, and no statistic, no matter how shocking, is going to change things by itself. What is going to change things — what always does — is when the American public comes together, based on common goals and common values, to say “enough!” And that is exactly what is happening, finally, on the gun violence issue. We certainly still have a long way to go, and a lot of hard work to do, but there is no doubt that change is in the air.