December 12, 2013

A year after Newtown, little change in public opinion on guns

After the horrific shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a year ago claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, there was a sense in the country – especially among gun-control supporters – that the tragedy would be different from similar ones in the past and push the nation to action. But ultimately, a sustained change in public opinion did not materialize, and a bill to tighten gun laws died in the Senate.

The idea that Newtown might lead to a sea change in public opinion on gun control had some basis in a Pew Research Center survey conducted less than a week after the shootings. About half of Americans (49%) said it was more important to control gun ownership while 42% said it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Although the numbers added up to just a modest change, it was the first time during Barack Obama’s presidency that more Americans came down on the side of making gun control the priority.


Another survey conducted right after the shootings found that Americans viewed Newtown differently than they did the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 that left 12 dead and the Jan. 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shootings that killed six people and seriously wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others.

After Newtown, 47% of those surveyed said that the shootings reflected broader problems in American society, while 44% believed they were isolated acts of troubled individuals. In the two other mass shooting incidents, the public largely viewed them as isolated acts. 

In the following months, surveys also found strong support for making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in early March of this year produced a finding much-quoted by advocates of tighter background checks – that 91% supported a law requiring checks on people buying guns at gun shows. Obama took note of that in an April speech in Denver, saying “Think about it:  How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?”

But later that month, the Senate bill on background checks went down to defeat when advocates couldn’t muster the 60 votes necessary to pass it. And in May, the overall trend on whether it was more important to control gun ownership or protect gun rights edged back in the direction of gun rights.

Why did the gun bill fail after Newtown? Pew Research’s poll in May, after the defeat, still found wide support for the idea of expanded background checks — 81% favored them, with nearly equal levels of support from Democrats and Republicans.

But the specific bill put forward in the Senate by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey was more divisive. While 81% of Republicans favored expanding background checks, just 57% supported the bill. Many of those who had reservations about the bill expressed concerns that it included other restrictions about background checks, or would lead to a “slippery slope” toward more government power.

Also at play was the greater political involvement of conservative Republicans and gun owners who prioritized protecting gun rights.

A quarter of those who prioritized gun rights said they had given money to an organization taking a position on the issue and 12% of them had done so in the previous six months. By comparison, just 6% of those prioritizing gun control had donated to a group, with only 3% doing so in the previous six months.

Conservative Republicans are also more likely to base their vote on where a candidate stands on gun policy. While only 36% of Americans overall said they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on gun policy even if the candidate agreed with them on most other issues, that share rises to 47% for conservative Republicans. The percentage is smaller for liberal Democrats (37%) and conservative/moderate Democrats (31%).

By the same token, 52% of gun owners who prioritize gun rights would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on the issue. A smaller number of non-gun owners (33%) said they would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on gun policy.

Topics: Gun Policy

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. Johnd4933 years ago

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  2. Dennis Litfin4 years ago

    Gun Registration will not kill you. Incompetents with guns will kill you. Common sense says control the incompetents on this social issue just as you control the incompetents in other public issues. Sidetracking and bending the facts do not change the basic premise that gun registration should be a given in America.

  3. Troy Jones4 years ago

    Legislators are right not to try to eliminate crime by removing guns from the hands of’
    of law abiding citizens…and it is already illegal for those convicted of crimes to own guns. Any additional laws would just be a burden to law abiding people and do nothing to affect the actions of criminals. The law makers should concentrate on areas where there is progress to be made.

  4. Kpar4 years ago

    All of these mass shootings occurred in “gun free zones”.

    Need I point out the obvious?

  5. Ben4 years ago

    The true question is…… Why the citizens of The United States of America allowing a civilian military force to exist? There are allowances for Militia’s not a paid political homeland security force? The constitution has no provision for a dept of homeland security armed with automatic weapons and million’s of rounds of military ammunition, the same bullet proof vest’s our soldier’s are wearing. All the time we are allowing the dismantling of our armed forces by reducing their funding….Ask questions expect truthful answers from those elected to represent you. Why are we not demanding a registry of mental patient’s? More strict gun laws will not protect those area’s that have the bulk of homicides…ruled by liberal’s elected to protect their citizens. Take the largest five city’s heaviest in violent crime out of the equation ruled by liberal’sand we would have the lowest crime rate in the world just under Switzerland.

  6. Number 94 years ago

    Gun control is an issue of individual rights versus the value of human life. Research is clear that countries with more restrictive gun control laws have fewer gun deaths and that for every life saved by a gun, dozens are taken. Nevertheless, it’s not a question of what is right and wrong. It’s whether the right to have a gun is more important to a person than the life of an innocent stranger.