Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Stability in Public Opinion toward Firearms Regulation
By and large, attitudes toward firearms regulation have shown great stability over the last 40 years. Gun control has been debated at the national level since the mid-1960s, so public opinion on gun control tends to be mature and not subject to large or sudden fluctuations or shifts. Except for a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when support for gun control measures rose moderately, attitudes have generally remained stable over time.13 Moreover, the little change that has occurred has tended to be back-and-forth, rather than a clear, long-term trend in one direction.
Two factors could account for the stability of these attitudes. First, gun control is a long-debated issue familiar to most people. Second, individuals' attitudes toward guns are shaped by prior experience with firearms, especially by an individual's exposure to guns while growing up and by the prominence of guns in the local community. These formative experiences may well fix people's attitudes toward guns and gun control.
The stability of public attitudes toward gun control can be seen clearly in public reaction to the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999. Many gun control advocates expected that Littleton would create a groundswell of support for stronger gun control measures, or at least for measures to restrict youth access to guns. Indeed, the Littleton shootings attracted a tremendous amount of media and public attention.14
That media coverage and public attention, however, did not translate into additional support for gun control laws. As Table 5 indicates, Littleton did increase the salience and importance of crime and gun violence in the public's mind. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, respondents in public opinion polls became much more likely to mention crime in general or gun violence in particular as the most important problem facing the country.15 Littleton also brought gun control to the top of people's minds, advanced its place on the political agenda,16 and became a key factor behind the organization of the Million Mom March and other initiatives to pass gun control laws.17
Although Littleton may have motivated the majority of the American public who already support gun control laws, it did not change people's minds about how to address the problem of crime and gun violence. There is little indication that Littleton generally increased support for gun control in the short term and no sign that it did so after six months.18 Thus, Littleton serves as a powerful example of how fixed Americans' views of gun control really are. Even a mass school shooting on live television did little to change people's views on this issue.