Another tragic weekend — in which separate gunmen killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, and nine people in Dayton, Ohio — has once again brought gun policy to the political forefront. And by now we know all too well how that debate tends to go: Americans generally support specific gun reforms like a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks, but the two parties are extremely polarized on guns as a cultural issue, so little ever gets done.
As unshakable as this stalemate may seem, public opinion on gun control is not static. Support for regulating gun ownership can ebb and flow in response to mass shootings, probably in part because of how rapidly stories about any given mass shooting tend to rise and fall in the news cycle. For example, a Quinnipiac poll taken in February 2018 — just days after the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — found that 66 percent of Americans said they supported stricter gun laws and 31 percent said they were opposed. It was the highest support that Quinnipiac had ever measured. But by April, support was down to 56 percent and opposition was up to 39 percent. Other pollsters have also shown that, while the effect of mass shootings on public opinion does fade, support for stricter gun laws has never fallen all the way back to the level it was at before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Indeed, the big-picture trend appears to be that, after bottoming out in the polls almost a decade ago, gun control has gotten more popular recently. Almost every year since 1990, Gallup has asked Americans about whether laws governing the sale of firearms in the U.S. should be made stricter, made less strict or kept as they are now. Because Gallup asks this question regularly, and usually not directly after a mass shooting has occurred — although this has not always been the case, and the polls conducted in the aftermath of mass shootings do tend to stand out — it gives us a less-noisy sense of how public opinion has shifted in the last 30 years. As you can see in the chart below, support for stricter gun laws has fallen from its historical high but is now trending back up.
In the early 1990s, huge majorities of Americans — even more than do so today — supported stricter gun laws; it was in this environment that both the 1993 “Brady bill” and the 1994 assault-weapons ban were enacted. But support for stricter gun laws then fell in the ensuing years (although there was a mini spike just before the assault-weapons ban expired in 2004) to the point where, at the beginning of this decade, roughly the same number of people favored stricter gun laws as were happy with the status quo.
However, since then — even ignoring the spikes apparently caused by the shootings in Parkland and at Sandy Hook — support for stricter gun laws has once again increased (although it’s still not as high as it was in the early 1990s). The latest Gallup poll, conducted in October 2018 found that 61 percent of Americans supported stricter gun laws, compared with 30 percent who thought the laws should remain as they are.
Other pollsters also find a favorable signal for gun control amid all the noise. From the first to the most recent time Quinnipiac asked about stricter gun laws, support has increased from 52-45 in November 2015 to 61-34 in May 2019. And a series of Marist polls that were taken after mass shootings show that the heights of post-shooting spikes in support are only getting higher — from 60 percent support for stricter gun laws after Sandy Hook to 64 percent after Las Vegas to 71 percent after Parkland. So it seems that mass shootings in recent years have had a cumulative effect, pushing public opinion to the left on gun policy.
Perhaps even more importantly, a different Gallup question found that Americans have also begun rating gun policy as a more important issue over the last few years. In a December 2018 poll, Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans said it was “extremely” or “very” important that Congress and the White House deal with the issue of gun policy in the following year, which was a significant increase from the 54 percent of Americans who said gun policy was extremely or very important to them in January 2014. However, we still have a while before guns are the most important issue to Americans. In July 2019, only 1 percent said guns were the number-one problem facing the country — barely changed from the 0 percent who said so for most of the 2000s. And while this number does spike in response to mass shootings — it got as high as 7 percent in the six months after Sandy Hook and hit 13 percent after Parkland — so far, it has never stayed at those elevated levels for very long. So while public opinion has swung more toward the side of gun control in recent years, it may not yet be dramatic or consistent enough to force politicians to act.