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Will Newtown Killings Shift Public's Attitude On Guns?

A gun shop in Glendale, Calif.
Gabriel Bouys
AFP/Getty Images
A gun shop in Glendale, Calif.

The tragedy in Newtown, Conn., will surely spur pollsters to ask Americans again about guns, gun ownership, gun laws and the Second Amendment.

If recent experience is a good guide, public opinion may not shift too much.

Pew Research Center writes that:

"Recent mass shootings have had little impact on the public's attitudes toward gun control. That was the case after the Colorado theater shootings; similarly, views of gun control changed little after the Jan. 2011 shooting in Tucson Arizona, which killed six people and seriously wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

"In April 2007, following the large-scale shooting at Virginia Tech University, 60% said it was more important to control gun ownership, which was little changed from 58% in February 2004."

The murders of 20 small children and six adults at an elementary school could be just so shocking, of course, that it will move opinion.

The one relatively recent point in time where polls done by both Pew and Gallup show a significant upward movement in favor of making gun laws "more strict" or of making gun "control" more important than protecting "the rights of Americans to own guns" was after the April 1999 attack by two students at Colorado's Columbine High School. They killed 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives. In both organizations' polls, public opinion in favor of "gun control" hit 66 percent.

Since then, both polling organizations show support more or less steadily declining into the low 40s.

Opinion also might be moved by very public calls by some prominent leaders (such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) for stricter gun laws.

How public opinion has changed in recent decades.
/ Gallup
How public opinion has changed in recent decades.

We'll watch for polling on the issue in coming days and weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.

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