Do We Really Want to Change Gun Control Policies?

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When tragedy strikes, our first reaction is usually purely human. We mourn and get angry at the perpetrator of senseless violence… or others we may blame. We get sad, we cry for the victims, and some of us may even march in the streets demanding action. However, as we adjust to the new reality, as the emotions settle, we turn to the rational side of our brains and begin to wonder what — if anything — should and could change to prevent such twisted tragedy from happening again.

The shooting in Parkland was not the first mass shooting of 2018, but something about it feels different. Perhaps it is the students who took charge of the issue. Maybe it is seeing large corporations taking a stand on the matter. We will not know for some time whether this will open the door to real change, but many of us are looking for some indication of what the future may look like.

One can argue that, at the end of the day, major policy changes are driven by the will of the public. So, for a quick look into the crystal ball, we conducted a short study into the thoughts and feelings of the American public. So, what does our crystal ball say?

Gun violence is seen as one of many problems, but maybe not one of the most important one

When we conducted our study about a week after the Parkland shooting, we didn’t focus on getting answers representing the entire US population. Rather, we wanted to find a good mix of conservatives, liberals, and independents; as well as those who do and do not own guns, to see how sentiments and potential solutions to the problem differ across those groups.

One sentiment we found that resonated strongly across the board (Total respondents, N=150), was the desire for a change in public policy. When we asked whether “public shootings are a problem, which should be addressed with changes in policies, laws, or regulations” 89% said “yes.” However, when we tried to gauge the level of urgency or priority with which gun violence should be addressed, we found that only about 57% of respondents felt that this was either the most important problem in society today (21%) or one of the most important problems (35%). For about 37% of respondents, gun violence is just one of the many problems we are facing today.

This gap between the “we need policy change” statement that was supported by almost 90% of respondents and the 57% of respondents who consider this an important problem may suggest an impediment for policy change. It may mean that when it comes to prioritizing which public policies get addressed by our legislators, this may not be an issue that rises to the top. Furthermore, to test how important this issue is to our panel, we asked whether they were willing to take action, such as participating in organized events in support of stricter gun control. Only 13% were planning on participating, and 63% were planning on not going, with about a quarter of respondents being undecided.

Background checks and a focus on mental health were widely supported solutions

One of the questions we were most interested in hearing about was what kind of policy solutions our respondents would like to see implemented. We left this question open-ended, because we did not want to bias respondents with our own hypotheses. Having the creative freedom to answer this question any way they liked, respondents provided answers covering the entire spectrum from conservative (“cops on duty at schools”) to liberal (“stop selling guns”). But when it comes to consensus, the top 5 answers most supported by our respondents were quite specific and tactical and included calls for better background checks and detection of mental illness. We saw some support for broader policy changes (stricter laws to own a gun, an age requirement for gun ownership), but they were much less supported than the more tactical measures mentioned above.

It is also interesting to note that more radical policy changes such as banning gun ownership entirely were reserved to the fringes of our response pool. They were unpopular not only among conservatives and independents, but also among liberals, gathering less than 25% of support.

Blame lies in individual responsibility

During times when events such as the school shooting in Parkland, Florida capture the public media, it is difficult to avoid assigning blame for such events. Hence, we wanted to understand, in the eyes of our respondents, who would bear responsibility if a shooting such as this were to happen again. We found that, across the board, the responsibility would be laid squarely on the shooter and those close to them.

The gunman would be the one held responsible by over 80% of respondents: “It’s always the individual’s decision to commit the crime” or “The shooters themselves for not taking responsibility for their health.” However, respondents recognized the role of parents and professionals who should have recognized signs of trouble and done something about it: “Child needs help… there are always signs that the person is losing.” There was a slight majority among respondents who blame the government and lawmakers, and about 40% of respondents agreed that law enforcement would carry some blame.

NRA in the center the debate

The NRA (National Rifle Association) has been at the center of attention ever since the shooting in Parkland took place. Among our respondents, about 1/3 owned a gun and about 10% were members of the NRA. We asked our panel about their attitudes toward the NRA. Not surprisingly, gun owners had a more positive opinion of the NRA than the non-owners. However, gun ownership does not guarantee a positive attitude toward the NRA — 50% of the gun owners in our study did not have a positive opinion of the NRA.

But there is an indication that the opinion about the NRA is changing. Not as much among the gun owners, but those who do not own the gun are becoming less likely to have a positive opinion of the NRA. More than 40% of the respondents who did not own a gun have lowered their opinion of the National Rifle Association in the last two years.

What it all means

We found evidence that there is a public desire for some change in gun policies; our respondent panel reached a good consensus regarding the need for more comprehensive background checks and for more to be done about mental illness. However, much of the solution has revolved around better security at schools, which doesn’t affect the broader gun control policy issues. Even the issue of arming teachers earned an almost even 50:50 split among our respondents. Considering that only a little more than ½ of our respondents considered gun violence an important problem in today’s society and an even smaller portion of them were motivated to take action, we find it unlikely that any major changes in gun control will be driven from the bottom-up. What is more likely is that small steps toward better security at schools will be taken as a no-regret move, while bigger changes may wait for another day.

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