Summary of Findings
Last week’s shootings at Virginia Tech have had little immediate impact on public opinion about gun control. Six-in-ten Americans say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 32% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Opinion has changed little since 2004, when 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners.
At the same time, a 55% majority opposes a ban on the sale of handguns, while just 37% favor such a ban. There was greater support for gun control in the late 1990s and in 2000. In 2000, the public was evenly split over a handgun ban (47% favor/47% opposed).
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 18-22 among 1,508 adults, finds deep public differences about whether mass shootings like those at Virginia Tech reflect broader problems in society or are just the isolated acts of individuals.
Roughly half (47%) say such shootings are isolated acts, while about as many (46%) say they reflect broader societal problems. Opinions on this issue are divided politically; a solid majority of conservative Republicans (57%) say shootings like the one at Blacksburg are just the isolated acts of troubled individuals. Most liberal Democrats (59%) blame broader problems in American society.
Those who say the shootings reflect fundamental societal problems offer a variety of explanations. Overall, 37% volunteer problems related to morality or social values, while 23% cite shortcomings in the mental health, legal, or school systems. Just 14% mention gun laws or issues related to gun control.
Gender Divide Over Causes
There is a sizable gender gap in opinions about whether the Virginia Tech shootings, and others like them, are isolated acts of troubled individuals, or represent broader societal problems. By 55%-39%, men generally believe that such shootings are just isolated acts. By a nearly identical margin (54%-37%), women say shootings like the one at Blacksburg reflect broader problems in American society.
While liberal Democrats generally say these tragedies reflect problems in society – and conservative Republicans say the opposite – other political groups are more evenly divided. Among independents, moderate and liberal Republicans, and conservative and moderate Democrats, roughly the same number points to broader societal problems as say these shootings are the isolated acts of troubled individuals.
Notably, residents of the West are more likely than those in other regions to say that large-scale shootings are the acts of troubled people. People in the Northeast, by contrast, mostly point to broader societal problems.
People who said that the shootings at Virginia Tech and similar tragedies reflect broader problems in society differ in their views about those problems. Nearly half of Republicans who say the shootings reflect broader societal problems cite issues with morality or social values; that compares with just 26% of Democrats. Democrats who say the shootings reflect broader societal problems are much more likely than Republicans to mention gun laws or the ease with which people can buy guns (22% vs. 8%).
Gun Control Trends
In recent years, majorities have consistently said it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners, although opinions have fluctuated somewhat. Support for controlling gun ownership peaked in March 2000, less than a year after the shootings at Columbine High School. At that time, 66% said it was more important to control gun ownership, while just 29% thought it was more important to protect the rights of gun owners.
Support for gun owners’ rights subsequently increased, reaching a high point of 42% in June 2003 before falling back to 37% in February 2004. Currently, there is somewhat less support for gun owners’ rights than three years ago, though the overall balance of opinion has not changed substantially.
Yet there is somewhat greater opposition to a law banning the sale of handguns than there was in 2000 or the late 1990s. Currently, 55% say they oppose such a ban, compared with 47% in 2000. There are deep differences in opinions on both gun control questions. For instance, men oppose a ban on handgun sales by more than two-to-one (64%-30%). Women are fairly evenly divided over such a ban, with 47% opposed and 44% in favor.
By a wide margin (75%-21%), Republicans oppose a law banning handgun sales. Half of Democrats support a law prohibiting handgun sales, while 43% are opposed. Most independents (54%) oppose a ban on handgun sales, while 38% support a ban.
Impact on Children
Most parents of school age children say their kids have followed coverage of the shootings (56%), and most have talked either a lot (19%) or some (39%) with their children about the events at Virginia Tech. At the same time, four-in-ten parents of children in Kindergarten through 12th grade say their kids have not followed the story, and 24% say they have not talked about the events with their kids at all.
Four-in-ten parents say they have been trying to restrict how much coverage of the shootings their children watch, while 58% have not. Mothers are significantly more likely to say they are trying to restrict how much their kids see than are fathers (46% vs. 32%).
Most parents with children in college also report talking either a lot (27%) or some (28%) about the Virginia Tech shootings with their children, but about a quarter (28%) have not talked about the incident with their college kids at all. Most college parents (57%) say their kids in college have expressed no fears about safety at their school since the shootings, while 10% say their children in college have expressed a lot of concern about safety.