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More Americans say guns are the country’s top issue than ever have before

The Parkland shooting could have genuinely changed public opinion.

Hundreds Of Thousands Attend March For Our Lives In Washington DC Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

After the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, at least six public opinion polls suggested that Americans were becoming more receptive to gun control. The shifts were significant — anywhere from 7 to 18 points in a matter of months, depending on the specific question and pollster.

Unlike other mass shootings, Parkland has remained in the news because of survivors’ persistent activism and organizing. So in the wake of the March for Our Lives, it’s worth asking: Is the shift sticking? Has the Parkland shooting, and the remarkable activism undertaken by Parkland high schoolers in its aftermath, meaningfully and permanently changed the debate on gun control?

Past school shootings have usually had transient effects on public opinion, if any. Kevin Wozniak, a sociologist at UMass Boston, reviewed polls after the Newtown school shooting in 2012 and found that the event coincided with a temporary spike in support for gun control, followed by a leveling off and return to pre-mass shooting opinion by the end of 2013.

Recent polls suggest the bump in support for gun control after the Parkland shooting might be fading, at least in part. But Americans are also more likely than they were before the shooting to say that guns are the most important problem in America.

It’s still early going, and it would be irresponsible to draw too definite a conclusion. It’s also hard to say definitely that Parkland, rather than another factor, caused shifts in public opinion that have occurred. This is real life, not a randomized experiment.

But the activism comes after years of increasing support for gun control. Even if the Parkland shooting itself didn’t cause or accelerate this shift, it could mark the culmination of a long-term shift in public opinion toward being more supportive of gun regulations.

After Parkland, Americans were more supportive of gun control

Polls found in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting that Americans were concerned about mass shootings and more supportive of the government regulating guns than in the past.

In some cases, gun control polled better after Parkland than it did in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017, which killed 58 people, the deadliest mass shooting in post-World War II American history.

  • A Quinnipiac poll conducted from February 16 to 19 found that the share of respondents saying it was “too easy” to buy a gun increased from 59 to 67 percent from November. The share saying that more people carrying guns would make the public safer fell from 37 to 33 percent. The share who said they worry about being a victim of a mass shooting grew from 37 to 45 percent from December to February. And that the share saying the National Rifle Association supports policies that are bad for the United States increased from 47 percent in October to 51 percent in February.
  • A CBS News poll conducted from February 20 to 22 found that the share of Americans saying “laws covering the sale of guns should be stricter” had surged from 57 percent in December to 65 percent after Parkland.
  • A Marist poll conducted from February 20 to 21 found that the share of Americans wanting stricter gun laws had grown from 64 percent in October to 71 percent.
  • A CNN poll conducted from February 20 to 23 found that 70 percent of Americans said they wanted stricter gun laws, compared to just 52 percent after the Las Vegas mass shooting in October. 64 percent said that the government and society could take actions to prevent mass shootings, compared to 47 percent after Las Vegas, 46 percent after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, 35 percent after the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, and 46 percent after the Newtown shooting.
  • A Morning Consult poll conducted from February 22 to 26 found that support for stricter gun laws among registered voters surged to 68 percent, from just 60 percent in November, with particularly big increases among Republicans, a majority of whom now say they back tougher gun laws.
  • An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted from February 27 to 28 found that 75 percent of respondents wanted stricter gun laws, compared to 68 percent in October, after the Las Vegas shooting.

What polling one month after Parkland tells us

Two polls comparing attitudes before the Parkland shooting to those in March, a month or so later, with no intervening polling in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, show that attitudes are still, overall, more positive toward gun control than they were previously. These polls, by their design, can’t tell us if support increased in the shooting’s immediate aftermath before fading. But they speak to the net trend over a longer time horizon.

  • A Gallup poll conducted from March 1 to 8 that showed that 67 percent of Americans want more strict gun laws, up from 60 percent in October and way, way up from 47 percent back in 2014. Overall, the trendline is very positive for gun control supporters:
Gun control polling over time Gallup
  • Gallup also reported that 13 percent of respondents in March named guns as the most important problem in America (behind only “dissatisfaction with government,” which got 22 percent). In February 2018, pre-Parkland, fewer than 1 percent named guns as the most important problem. Only 1 percent did in January. Since Gallup started including guns as an option in 1994, they have never reached as high as 13 percent in this pool. Guns appear to have eaten into immigration and health care, among other issues.
  • A Marist poll conducted from March 19 to 21 found that 39 percent of Americans thought it was more important to protect gun rights than to control gun violence, compared to 54 percent who thought the opposite; that shifted from 45 percent prioritizing gun rights and 52 percent prioritizing gun control in October 2017.

That being said, polls conducted in both the immediate aftermath and weeks or months following Parkland present some preliminary evidence that the gains for gun control advocates are fading somewhat:

  • Quinnipiac conducted another poll from March 3 to 5 and found that the share supporting stricter gun laws had faded to 63 percent, down from 66 percent after Parkland but still above 59 percent in December.
  • A similar effect happened for other gun questions. In November, 65 percent of Americans supported a “nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons.” After Parkland, it was 67 percent. By March 3 to 5, it was down to 61 percent, the lowest point since 2016.
  • In the March 3-5 poll, 63 percent of Americans supported “nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.” In October, 64 percent supported that. In both occasions, 34 percent of Americans opposed the move. Public opinion hadn’t budged overall.
  • Quinnipiac released yet another round of polling covering March 16 to 20. It found that the share of people saying that Congress has to “do more” to reduce gun violence went from 67 percent in December, to 75 percent in February post-Parkland, to 68 percent in mid-March. That suggests a Parkland spike that’s since leveled off.
  • On the other hand, Quinnipiac also found that between March 3-5 and March 16-20, the share of respondents saying they thought President Trump is scared of the NRA increased, from 31 to 37 percent.
  • What’s more, Marist released a poll covering March 5 to 6, which found that the share of respondents saying they thought the Parkland student activists had “no impact at all” had fallen from 23 to 19 percent between the immediate aftermath of the shooting to then. The public, in other words, had grown mildly more confident in their persuasive powers.

Perhaps the most important number of all the above is the finding that gun violence has shot up in importance, and it’s now the second-most-cited problem in America by the public. That suggests that, regardless of overall public opinion on the issue, its salience has grown markedly. That could have electoral consequences, or change the kind of constituents that lawmakers hear from if it reflects a greater mobilization on the part of pro-gun control forces.

In the long run: support for gun control, including specific measures, is high and growing

Taking a step back from the specific question of what the Parkland students achieved, it’s clear from the polling data that support for increased gun control remains high and has steadily increased in recent years. The above Gallup chart is perhaps the clearest evidence, but other polls back this up:

  • According to Quinnipiac, support for a ban on high-capacity magazines grew from 56 percent to 63 percent from January 2013 to March 2018. Support for an assault weapons ban grew from 56 to 61 percent.
  • CNN found that the share of people saying stricter gun laws would reduce gun deaths increased from 40 percent in June 2015 to 56 percent in February 2018, after Parkland.
  • CBS News found that the share of people wanting stricter gun sale laws went from 39 percent in April 2012 to 65 percent in February 2018 post-Parkland.
  • Quinnipiac found that the share of Americans who think more people carrying guns would make the country safer had fallen from 44 percent in December 2015 to 33 percent post-Parkland.

There are, as always, caveats. The share of Americans supporting a ban on all guns hovers in the 8 to 10 percent range, making it a pretty fringe position. Support for a handgun ban is a little more than 20 percent and has fallen over the years. CBS found that the share of people supporting arming teachers, while still a minority, grew from 38 percent to 44 percent between October 2015 and February 2018.

But in a mirror image of the findings on a gun ban, support for universal background checks often polls in excess of 90 percent. It rarely shows much movement, just because support for it is already near universal. The NPR poll found that more than 80 percent of respondents supported raising the legal gun-purchasing age, banning bump stocks, requiring universal background checks, and adding people with mental illness to the background check system (a move that has concerned some patient advocacy groups).

The public at large is pretty clear and consistent in backing new restrictions on guns. They’re typically somewhat mild, and polling on banning large categories of weapons like semiautomatic rifles is more mixed (though some recent polling still shows majorities support that). And there is definitely an intensity gap whereby gun rights supporters make the issue a greater priority.

But the Parkland movement might change that dynamic, at least slightly, by making gun issues higher salience for the country as a whole. And regardless of intensity, the public as a whole is remarkably united behind at least modest measures to restrict gun sales.

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