After the Virginia Tech shootings, vast numbers of Americans support policy changes, including stricter measures to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns and better efforts by universities to identify and counsel disturbed students.
Basic attitudes on gun control, though, remain unchanged, and the public stays sharply divided on the effectiveness of gun laws, with far more citing cultural and social influences as the main causes of gun violence. Nonetheless, 83 percent in this ABC News poll support steps to ensure that states report mentally ill people to the federal gun-sales registry, a measure that might have blocked the Virginia Tech shooter from buying his weapons.
Just as many, 84 percent, support requiring universities to provide stricter screening and counseling for students they suspect of being mentally ill and posing a possible danger to themselves or others. And 88 percent favor requiring to notify parents when they suspect a student of suffering from mental illness.
Schools said current anti-discrimination laws leave them little leverage to require students to obtain counseling, and confidentiality laws limit their ability to report concerns about students' mental health to parents. But some movement has begun: President Bush has initiated a federal study of issues raised by the Virginia Tech tragedy. And lawmakers said Sunday they'd push legislation to provide the states with money to update the instant-check gun registry with the names of people judged to be mentally ill.
Also, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, a majority of Americans, 69 percent, worry that this kind of attack could happen in their own community -- that is, they said it's at least somewhat likely. (Fewer, about a quarter, call it "very" likely.)
Basic attitudes on gun control have not moved significantly after previous notorious gun crimes, and the same holds true now. Overall, 61 percent favor stricter gun control in general -- identical to its level last fall, and almost exactly its average in polls since 1989. Fewer, 41 percent, "strongly" favor anti-gun laws.
Support varies with the specific measure. Sixty-seven percent support banning assault weapons, and 55 percent support banning semi-automatic handguns. But majorities oppose banning concealed weapons or banning all handguns except those used by law enforcement officers. The latter gets just 38 percent support, same as in 2000.
There are big differences among groups on these issues. Women were more apt than men to support stricter gun laws overall, 72 percent to 50 percent. There are sharp political and ideological gaps. And people in gun-owning households -- 45 percent of all Americans -- are much less likely to support gun control measures.
Policy and Politics
Fundamentally, though, the public has compunctions about gun-control measures, which limits the issue's political clout. As in the past, relatively few Americans are convinced that new laws would have a significant impact on violence; many prefer better enforcement to new legislation; and as noted, most view cultural and social factors, rather than the availability of guns, as the prime cause of gun violence.
Further, gun-control opponents, while smaller in number, are disproportionately likely to make it a do-or-die issue in winning their vote.
Americans split evenly, 49-50 percent, on whether stricter gun laws would reduce violent crime, with a 20-point difference between men and women, and more than a 30-point gap between Republicans and Democrats and between conservatives and liberals. Overall, only 27 percent think such laws would do "a lot" to reduce violence.
The public, by a 23-point margin, 52 to 29 percent, continues to prefer better enforcement of existing gun laws to enactment of new ones. On this a majority of men (58 percent) and a plurality of women (46 percent) agree, while partisan and ideological divisions are sharper.
Asked the primary cause of gun violence, far more Americans blamed the effects of popular culture (40 percent) or the way parents raise their children (35 percent) than the availability of guns (18 percent). In no population group does more than about a fourth cite the availability of guns as the chief cause of gun violence.
In the most direct political calculation, 60 percent said they could vote for a political candidate with whom they disagree on gun control.
Notably, two-thirds of gun control supporters said they could still vote for someone who disagrees with them on the issue -- but among gun control opponents that drops to 49 percent. Given the size of each group, that makes for essentially identical numbers of single-issue pro- and anti-gun voters, despite gun control's 61 percent popularity overall.
In one possible shift, more people today said they'd only vote for a candidate who agreed with them on gun control -- 31 percent overall -- than said so in a March 2004 poll, 23 percent. One reason may be that the 2004 poll focused on various political issues; while this one this one focused directly on guns and gun crime. It's a measure to keep watching.
One other change is that, compared with a 2000 Gallup poll, more people now blame gun violence on popular culture, and fewer blame it on child-rearing. But about the same number chiefly blame the availability of guns.
Substantial numbers in this survey expressed concerns both about the performance of Virginia Tech in advance of the shootings and of the news media afterward. Given the behavior of the gunman in the months leading up to the shooting, 54 percent said the university did not do enough to investigate concerns about his mental health.
As for the media, the public divided on the airing of photos and videos the shooter had prepared of himself -- 48 percent said it was wrong for news organizations to air these, while 43 percent said it was the right thing to do. Opposition peaked among older and better-educated adults; about six in 10 in both groups said it was wrong for the news organizations to air these videos.
This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone April 22, 2007, among a random national sample of 788 adults. The results have a 3.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.