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How a post-Columbine generation views gun control

Younger Americans aren’t as progressive on gun legislation as you might expect.

AJ Chavar/Vox

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students have demanded changes to gun control legislation. Their impassioned critiques of politicians’ responses and organizing powers have captivated the nation and led many to suggest that a safer future lies in the hands of younger generations.

But the perception that the overwhelming majority of young people are pro-gun control might not be accurate.

Roughly 80 percent of millennials think the US has a problem with mass shootings, according to an October 2017 poll by the apartment listing site Adobo, and 78 percent believe it’s too easy to purchase a gun according to the same survey. But past polls have found young Americans are decidedly mixed on firearm legislation, and in some cases are more supportive of gun rights than older Americans.

The youngest Americans who are routinely surveyed — 18- to 29-year-olds — are less likely to own guns than older generations were at their age.

The Parkland teens who are speaking out are even younger than the 18- to 29-year-olds polled. So it’s possible that being born after the Columbine High School shootings and experiencing mass shootings as a routine event will change how they think.

Generally, though, millennial attitudes toward gun control don’t necessarily align with their other political beliefs.

NYU political scientist Patrick Egan explained that because millennials are “the most liberal generation in the electorate,” citing such issues as LGBTQ rights and climate change, we have an “expectation that millennials would hold the most liberal attitudes on gun control.”

In reality, he tells us, “it’s a much more mixed picture.”

It’s true that young Americans are less likely to own guns — but if they do, they’re gun loyalists

Only 27 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported that they own guns in a June 2017 Pew survey.

And while gun ownership has ticked up since 2004, as the first millennials were entering adulthood, it’s still far below the rate at which earlier generations owned guns, according to Egan:

Millennials who do own guns, meanwhile, are very into them. Most 18- to 29-year-olds cite sport shooting as their principal reason for firearm ownership, indicating that guns are as much a cultural touchstone in the US now as ever.

Kim Parker, the director of social trends research at Pew Research Center, told NBC News that millennials are more likely to listen to gun-oriented podcasts and shows, participate in online forums, and integrate technology into gun culture.

Young Americans are divided on gun restriction measures but oppose the NRA

A 2015 Pew survey that found 18- to 29-year-olds are less likely than older Americans to support a ban on assault weapons: Just 49 percent of millennials were for the assault weapons ban, compared with 55 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 61 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 63 percent of those 65 and over. But they were the most likely to support restricting purchases for people with mental illness.

Meanwhile, 18- to 29-year-olds lead the country in support for concealed carry, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. They’re more likely to support the practice of carrying a hidden firearm in public by a full 10 points, at 66 percent. Meanwhile, only 56 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and roughly 50 percent of those older than 50 are for the policy.

When it comes to their overall perception of the National Rifle Association, millennials are decidedly not fans. They give the lowest favorability rating to the organization, at 19 percent, while 35 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds, 45 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 51 percent of those 65 and up support it.

America’s falling crime rate could mean increased ambivalence toward gun ownership

A historically reliable predictor of American attitudes toward firearms has been the overall crime rate in the country.

So while it’s a good thing that violent crime has fallen sharply over the past quarter-century, Egan noted that this actually poses a challenge for the gun control movement.

“Americans are not that worried about crime. When they’re not as worried about crime, they’re not as worried about guns,” he said.

This idea is illustrated by the 2016 General Social Survey finding that support for gun permits is lowest among millennials, at 68 percent. By comparison, 71 percent of Gen Xers, 70 percent of baby boomers, and 75 percent of the silent generation favored the policy.

Younger Americans might be growing up in a country with less crime than ever before, but they’ve also spent their lives hearing about frequent mass shootings — from Columbine to Las Vegas to Sandy Hook. They also probably went to one of the nine in 10 schools that perform “active shooter” drills.

Younger people’s negative perception of law enforcement could be affecting their opinion on gun control

Another factor Egan hypothesized could be contributing to the mixed messages we’re seeing regarding young people and guns is their negative perception of law enforcement.

With unwarranted police violence against people of color making headlines over the past few years, Egan hypothesized that this population in particular might not be eager to cede regulation of guns to any level of government.

“When you ask young black and Latino Americans should the police regulate whether or not you can carry a gun, that brings up a lot of different sentiments, not all of which result in support for government regulation in bearing firearms,” he said.

There are a lot of questions about how to accurately assess young people’s attitudes on gun control

There’s a lot standing in the way of getting an accurate read of public perception for 18-year-olds. For one, there’s no way to get informed consent for someone that age. Then there’s the issue of how to even reach teenagers, who wouldn’t be the ones answering landlines (the traditional method for distributing these type of surveys.)

Really, the youngest generation’s attitude on guns and gun policy is still evolving.

“While we’re seeing a lot of ... very brave and compelling speeches and images coming out of Florida from these amazing teenagers, I think we strictly don’t know what that generation thinks about these questions yet, and we’re not going to know for a while,” said Egan.