Quick — it’s time for an “arc of history” argument. Believe it or not, it’s the first time in over 20 years of polling on the subject that Pew has seen Americans view their gun rights as more important than government policies to control them. Gun rights get a 52/46 majority over gun control, the latter of which used to dominate as a public policy demand until the last decade:
For the first time in more than two decades of Pew Research Center surveys, there is more support for gun rights than gun control. Currently, 52% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while 46% say it is more important to control gun ownership.
Support for gun rights has edged up from earlier this year, and marks a substantial shift in attitudes since shortly after the Newtown school shootings, which occurred two years ago this Sunday.
The balance of opinion favored gun control in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy in December 2012, and again a month later. Since January 2013, support for gun rights has increased seven percentage points – from 45% to 52% — while the share prioritizing gun control has fallen five points (from 51% to 46%).
Expect to hear a lot about Newtown when these results are discussed, but it’s not as relevant as Pew suggests. The report includes a chart showing the trends for the last 21 years of Pew polling on the topic, and the inflection point came well before Newtown. The trend lines have been advancing in this direction for almost a decade, and Newtown was only a momentary blip:
The trend toward gun rights began around 2006, and that might correlate with a couple of events. One could make the argument that voters worried that a new Democratic majority in Congress would take away guns, but there was a 40-year Democratic majority in 1993 and Americans didn’t seem as worried. I’d guess that the utter silliness of the “assault weapons” ban and its expiration made people realize that gun control policies are arbitrary, uninformed, and ultimately a penalty only for those who abide by the law.
Despite efforts to frighten people about responsible use of firearms, a majority of Americans now think that firearm ownership does more to protect people (57%) than put their safety at risk (38%). The latter figure is virtually unchanged from two years ago (37%), but the former has increased nine points (from 48%). In December 2012, 16% of respondents didn’t know how they felt about that, but over the last two years a whole lot more people have apparently changed their minds — and in the direction of gun ownership.
The demos on this change are fascinating — mainly because it occurs in almost every demo Pew uses. The largest gain is among black voters, where the conclusion that guns protect people from becoming victims rose an astonishing 25 points in two years, from 29% to 54%. Among women, it rose 11 points to go from 40% to 51%. It even rose among Democrats who identify as conservative or moderate by eight points to 47%, although still slightly outweighed by the safety-risk sentiment (49%). The only demo in which protection lost ground from two years ago is among liberal Democrats, and it only declined three points.
The demos on the public policy priority debate are somewhat different, but still informed by those changes. Blacks and Hispanics are still much more likely to give a priority to gun control over protecting gun rights (60% and 71%, respectively), although that’s down six points from two years ago among African-Americans. There has been a big shift among 18-29 year olds, a demo that gave control a priority by 20 points two years ago (39/59) but now splits much more narrowly on the subject, 47/52. Older demos have shifted even more significantly; 50-64YOs have moved from narrow support of control at 44/51 to strong support of ownership at 57/39, and seniors went from 45/47 to 53/43.
That’s not very good news for gun-control activists who have poured time and copious amounts of money to convince Americans to be frightened of responsible gun owners. That includes private players like Michael Bloomberg and his high-spending PAC, and public activists like Barack Obama and his administration, both of whom seized on Newtown to push for more government control:
After 26 died, Democrats and the White House made an all-out push for new gun laws. They wound up focusing on increased background checks — something polls showed as many as nine in 10 Americans supported (in theory). A few Republican senators even jumped on board. But it failed.
With the two-year anniversary of Newtown this weekend, support for gun control has reached a new low. …
Even when Americans are unified in believing that something is worth addressing, it’s exceedingly difficult to find consensus on the remedy. And it’s pretty rare that the fundamental politics of this country are permanently changed.
Newtown is case in point.
Had the White House and its activist allies limited their push to expanded background checks, they probably would have succeeded. The NRA doesn’t oppose background checks as long as they are not so onerous as to deny people the right to possess firearms responsibly. However, the White House and Bloomberg exploited Newtown to push for a renewed assault-weapons ban and restrictions on handguns and magazines, only retreating to background checks after those efforts largely failed. By pushing for a broad gun-control regime, the White House lost any support from Republicans they might have otherwise had, and poisoned the well for any future efforts. No one trusts the White House to act responsibly, and Bloomberg’s electoral efforts in this cycle turned out as well as this poll would have suggested.
There is a lesson to be learned here, but it’s a lesson in overreach and demagoguery. Neither sustains themselves for very long.