clock menu more-arrow no yes

Most Americans want US gun laws to change

As Congress continues to do nothing on guns, Americans' dissatisfaction with US gun laws has skyrocketed over the past few years, hitting at least a 15-year high in 2016.

In a new Gallup survey of 1,000 US adults, 62 percent of respondents said they're not satisfied with the nation's gun laws or policies, up 11 percentage points from 2015 and 5 points from 2001.

Most Americans are dissatisfied with gun laws. Gallup

About 61 percent of people dissatisfied with gun laws said they want the laws to be stricter, while 24 percent of those dissatisfied with gun laws said they want the laws to be less strict, according to the survey.

The findings suggest that Americans' views on guns have changed as mass shootings have gotten more national media coverage, such as the shootings last year in San Bernardino, California, and at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

But this isn't the first poll to find that many Americans want stricter gun laws. Previous polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center produced similar findings, with the great majority of Americans strongly supporting specific gun control measures when they're described in surveys. Still, little to nothing gets done on the national level, due to America's powerful gun culture and gun lobby.

Why there's so little political movement on gun control

Guns on an American flag. Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

It can be difficult to understand how the US hasn't done much to combat gun violence for years. America is unique in terms of both gun violence and gun ownership: It has way more guns than anyone else, and way more gun deaths than its developed peers. The research clearly shows that more guns mean more gun violence, so all those guns are leading to more deaths. And the public widely supports closing the loopholes in the law. Yet even with this research and public support, not much gets done at the federal level.

The reasons for this are complicated, but they're generally rooted in America's strong gun culture and the powerful lobby behind that culture.

The single most powerful political organization when it comes to guns is, undoubtedly, the National Rifle Association, which has an enormous stranglehold over conservative politics in America.

Attempts to impose new forms of gun control spur the NRA to rally gun owners and other opponents of gun control to kill such proposals. These gun owners make up a minority of the population: anywhere from 34 to 43 percent of households, depending on which survey one uses. But that population is a large and active enough constituency, particularly within the Republican base, to make many legislators fear that a poor grade from the NRA will end their careers.

As a result, conservative media and politicians take the NRA's support — especially the coveted A-to-F ratings the organization gives out — very, very seriously. Sometimes politicians will go to absurd lengths to show their support for gun rights. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) last year starred in a video, from IJ Review, in which he cooked bacon with — this is not a joke — a machine gun.

Although several campaigns have popped up over the years to try to counteract the NRA, none has come close to capturing the kind of influential hold that the organization has. Some of the groups — such as StopTheNRA.com, partially funded by Democratic donor Ken Lerer — didn't even last a few years.

Kristin Goss, author of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, said this might be changing. She argued that newer gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions are much more organized, are better funded, and have more grassroots support than gun control groups have had in her 20 years covering this issue. As a result, Democrats at the state and federal level seem much more willing to discuss gun control.

But supporters of gun control face a huge obstacle: far more passionate opponents. As Republican strategist Grover Norquist said in 2000, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their 'control' position?" Probably not, Norquist suggested, "but for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."

What's behind that passion? Goss, who's also a political scientist at Duke University, suggested it's a sense of tangible loss — gun owners feel like the government is going to take their guns and rights. In comparison, gun control advocates are motivated by more abstract notions of reducing gun violence — although, Goss noted, the victims of mass shootings and their families have begun to put a face on these policies by engaging more actively in advocacy work, which could make the gun control movement feel more relatable.

There is an exception at the state level, where legislatures have passed laws imposing (and relaxing) restrictions on guns. In 2014, for instance, Washington state and Oregon passed laws ensuring all guns have to go through background checks, including those sold between individuals. "There's a lot more going on than Congress," Goss said. "In blue states, gun laws are getting stricter. And in red states, in some cases, the gun laws are getting looser."

Still, the NRA's influence and its army of supporters push many of America's legislators, particularly at the federal level and red states, away from gun control measures.


Watch: America's biggest gun problem is the one we never talk about