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Support For Gun Control Will Likely Rise After Uvalde. But History Suggests It Will Fade.

After a racist shooting earlier this month at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, guns have — yet again — emerged as a political issue that has dominated headlines. Democrats have issued impassioned pleas for the government to more tightly regulate the sale of firearms, and if past shootings are any indication, we will soon get a fresh batch of polling data showing that solid majorities of Americans agree with them. But again, if past shootings are any indication, Congress will not pass any reforms, in large part because many Republicans oppose gun control reform. And as happened so many times before, the strong public support for gun control will fade away with our memories of the shootings.

FiveThirtyEight took a look at polling and media data to show how support for gun laws has increased amid intense media coverage of past school shootings, but then reverted back toward the previous mean as the media spotlight moved on to other issues. We examined the period around two school shootings in 2018 to see how coverage of those events corresponded with changes in support for increased gun control. Specifically, we examined data around the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the May 18, 2018, shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.1 And as you can see in the chart below, there was an abrupt increase in the share of Americans who favored stricter gun laws right after each shooting, most especially Parkland, followed by a decline in support.

Two line charts showing how overall favorability of stricter gun control laws rises, then drops, and how the number of 15-second cable news clips mentioning “school shooting” also rises, and drops again, after a mass shooting.

Following each shooting, there was a huge surge in media attention and, correspondingly, a sharp rise in favorable views toward stricter gun laws. On the day of the Parkland massacre, about 51 percent of Americans told Civiqs they favored greater gun control, while about 42 percent were opposed. A week and a half later, the share who said they favored stricter gun laws had jumped to 58 percent, a significant increase in such a short period of time. In the wake of the Santa Fe shooting three months later, support rose from a little under 53 percent to a notch above 54 percent.

Bombarded by a high volume of terrible images and tragic stories right after a shooting, a small but meaningful number of Americans who opposed stricter gun control moved toward supporting it. For instance, the share of Republicans who favored increased gun restrictions rose from 12 percent to 22 percent in the 10 days following the Parkland shooting, and the share of independents in support rose from 45 percent to 53 percent. The share of Democrats who supported stricter gun laws also increased, from 88 percent to 92 percent. But as coverage tailed off — in the case of Parkland — or practically evaporated — in the case of Santa Fe — the share of Americans who favored stricter gun laws reverted toward the mean. 

This is not to say that news coverage perfectly explains shifts in support for stricter gun control. After all, partisan views on this issue likely reasserted themselves after the initial shock of the school shooting moved public opinion — for instance, the share of Republicans who favored stricter gun laws had almost returned to pre-Parkland levels before the shooting at Santa Fe caused them to shift slightly up again. However, the media does help determine the salience of certain issues by focusing coverage on particular problems facing the country. Simply put, if the media is covering something, Americans are more likely to think about it. Yet as the issue receives less attention, it moves out of the spotlight and something else takes its place.

Even if support for stricter gun laws in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings is inflated, though, it’s clear that Americans still support more gun control overall. A Gallup poll from October 2021 — a survey that was not inspired by a particular mass shooting — found that 52 percent of Americans wanted stricter laws governing gun sales, while only 11 percent wanted less strict laws; 35 percent felt that gun laws should be kept as they were at the time. 

And stricter gun laws have been Americans’ preference for most of the last 30 years. Back in 1990, when Gallup first asked this question, a whopping 78 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun-control laws. That number gradually fell to 43 percent by 2011, putting it in an approximate tie with the share of Americans who were satisfied with U.S. gun regulations. But the next year, in the immediate aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, support for more gun-sales restrictions increased to 58 percent, and it has remained around that high ever since — with some temporary spikes in response to major shootings like Parkland.

Multiple line chart showing share of respondents who said sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or keep the same, from 1991 to 2020, with a clear uptick for support on stricter gun laws after Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland mass shootings.

The trend in public opinion over the last decade offers both good and bad signs for supporters of gun control. On the one hand, Sandy Hook — which is sometimes considered a tipping point that normalized debating gun policy in response to mass shootings — appears to have had a lasting impact on American public opinion on guns. While pro-gun-control sentiment did fade in the months following Sandy Hook, it did not fall all the way back to its 2011 low — instead, the shooting seems to have fundamentally shifted the debate toward more Americans wanting stricter gun laws. On the other hand, though, support for gun control has markedly decreased since the 2019 spike associated with the shootings that summer in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, to a point even lower than the pre-Parkland (2018), pre-Las Vegas (2017), pre-Orlando (2016) baseline. (Civiqs has also picked up on this trend.)

It’s possible that we’re about to see another large spike in support after what happened in Uvalde, but if history is any guide, it won’t last for long.


2021 Texas laws made access to guns easier

Footnotes

  1. To do this, we compared closed-caption data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive for mentions of the two-word phrase “school shooting” on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from Feb. 1 to July 31, 2018, and overall support for stricter gun control in daily tracking polls from Civiqs during the same period.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Elena Mejía is a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight.

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