After a racist shooting Earlier this month at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and School shooting on Tuesday In Uvalde, Texas, guns have—once again—become a political issue dominating the headlines. Democrats have spent passionate requests for the government to regulate the sale of firearms more tightly, and if past shootings are any indication, we’ll soon have a new set of polling data showing solid majorities of Americans agree with them. But again if past shootings are a clueCongress will not pass reforms, in large part because Many Republicans oppose gun control reform. And as so often before, strong public support for gun control will fade with our memories of the shootings.
FiveThirtyEight took a look at poll and media data to show how support for gun laws rose amid intense media coverage of past school shootings, but then fell back to the previous mean as the media spotlight shifted to other issues relocated. We examined the period around two school shootings in 2018 to see how coverage of these events coincided with changes in support for increased gun control. Specifically, we examined data around February 14, 2018, Shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and on May 18, 2018, Shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. And as you can see in the chart below, the proportion of Americans supporting stricter gun laws right after each shooting rose abruptly, particularly in Parkland, followed by a fall in support.
After each shooting, there was a huge increase in media attention and a corresponding surge in positive views on stricter gun laws. On the day of the Parkland massacre, about 51 percent of Americans told Civiqs they favor stronger gun control, while about 42 percent opposed it. A week and a half later, the proportion who said they supported stricter gun laws had risen to 58 percent, a significant increase in such a short time. After the Santa Fe shooting three months later, support jumped from just under 53 percent to a level above 54 percent.
Immediately after a shooting was bombarded with a mass of horrific images and tragic stories, a small but significant number of Americans who opposed tighter gun controls moved to support it. For example, in the ten days after the Parkland shooting, the proportion of Republicans who supported stricter gun restrictions rose from 12 percent to 22 percent, and the proportion of Independents who supported it rose from 45 percent to 53 percent. The proportion of Democrats who advocated stricter gun laws also rose from 88 to 92 percent. But as coverage died down – in the case of Parkland – or virtually evaporated – in the case of Santa Fe – the proportion of Americans who supported stricter gun laws reverted to the median.
That’s not to say that media coverage perfectly explains shifts in support for tighter gun controls. Finally, after the initial shock of the school shooting stirred public opinion, partisan views on the issue have likely regained their footing — for example, the proportion of Republicans endorsing tougher gun laws had almost returned to pre-Parkland levels before the shooting in Santa Fe was causing her to switch back up slightly. But the media helps determine the importance of certain topics by focusing reporting on specific issues faced by the country. Put simply, when the media is reporting on something, Americans are more likely to think about it. But when the topic gets less attention, it slips out of the limelight and something else takes its place.
While support for stricter gun laws is inflated in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, it’s clear that, overall, Americans still support more gun control. A Gallup Poll an October 2021 poll — a poll not inspired by any specific mass shooting — found that 52 percent of Americans wanted tougher gun sales laws, while just 11 percent wanted looser laws; 35 percent believed that gun laws should remain as they were then.
And stricter gun laws were Americans’ preference most of the last 30 years. When Gallup first asked this question in 1990, a whopping 78 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun control laws. That number gradually dropped to 43 percent by 2011, roughly in line with the percentage of Americans who were satisfied with US gun laws. But the next year, immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, support for more gun sales restrictions rose to 58 percent, and it has remained at that high level ever since — with some temporary spikes in response to large-scale shootings like parkland.
Trends in public opinion over the past decade offer both good and bad signs for gun control advocates. On the one hand Sandy Hook – which is sometimes considered to be one turning point that the debate over gun policy in response to mass shootings was normalized – appears to have had a lasting impact on American public opinion about guns. While pro-gun control sentiment eased in the months after Sandy Hook, it didn’t quite fall back to its 2011 low — instead, the shooting appears to have fundamentally shifted the debate to one that more Americans want tougher gun laws. On the other hand, support for gun control has declined significantly since the 2019 spike surrounding the El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shootings, to a point even lower than before Parkland ( 2018). –Las Vegas (2017), pre-Orlando (2016) Initial situation. (Civiqs also has picked up this trend.)
It’s possible that after what happened in Uvalde, we’ll see another big surge in support, but if history is any guide, it won’t be long.