by Shawn Neidorf, Research Associate, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Updated April 16, 2007
Public opinion surveys taken before the Virginia Tech shootings, showed that over time Americans had become less disposed to support gun control measures than they were in the years surrounding the Columbine school shootings in 1999.
For example, Americans have a better opinion of the National Rifle Association these days than they did in the mid 1990’s. Over this same period, public calls for stricter gun-control laws have also quieted somewhat. A recent Pew nationwide survey found a 52%-to-32% majority of respondents holding a favorable opinion of the NRA, which will hold its massive annual convention on April 13-15 this year in St. Louis. While this is the first time since 1994 that the favorability rating of the group has crossed the 50% mark, positive views of the NRA have been inching upward in Pew polls in recent years.
Opinions of the NRA have improved among most demographic and political groups, but the anti-gun control advocacy organization has made its greatest gains among its traditional constituencies – men, whites and Republicans. Favorable views of the NRA among men, for example, jumped 11 percentage points, from 51% in 1995 to 62% in 2007. By contrast, favorable views among women stand at 42%, little changed from the 1995 level. And, while favorability rose 8 points among whites between 1995 and 2007, favorable views among blacks were essentially unchanged.
Republicans, who held the most favorable view of the NRA in 1995, not only continue to hold the most favorable view in 2007 (72% favorable), but also registered the largest gain in the number holding favorable views of the group — a 20-percentage point increase. Among Democrats, the increase in positive opinions was very modest. As a result, the gap between the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats toward the NRA grew much wider. In 1995, the gap measured 16-percentage points; by 2007 it had doubled to 32 points.
The NRA remains most popular in the South and the Midwest. The Midwest also experienced the largest increase in favorable views of the group, but attitudes in the West also became substantially more pro-NRA.
As attitudes toward the NRA have warmed, attitudes toward more restrictive gun control have cooled. In September 1990, 78% of respondents in a national survey told Gallup they felt that laws governing the sale of firearms should be stricter. The figure declined throughout the 1990s and reached its lowest point (51%) in October 2002. Since then support for stricter controls on guns has hovered in the mid-50s, reaching a peak of 60% in 2004.
Most recently, in October 2006, 56% of people told Gallup they favored stricter gun-sales laws. However, when given the choice in that poll between enforcing current gun laws more strictly or doing that plus passing new gun laws, most people (53%) preferred only that current laws be enforced more strictly.
At the same time, attitudes toward guns themselves are shifting. When asked whether a gun in the house makes the house safer or more dangerous, 47% said safer in October 2006 – up from 35% in August 2000 and 42% in October 2004.