Will the Maine shooting change public opinion on guns?

Most Americans want stricter gun laws but don't think they'll get them.

November 13, 2023, 3:42 PM

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our occasional polling roundup.

After the latest high-profile mass shooting — in Lewiston, Maine, where 18 people were killed in shootings at a bowling alley and local bar on Oct. 25 — Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, who represents the area, had a public change of heart on gun control laws, regretting his decision to oppose a ban on assault-style weapons last year. It was a rare reversal on such a divisive issue, but the aftermath of the shooting has otherwise lacked a big push for new laws, either at the state or federal level.

Recent polling suggests that Americans are very worried about gun violence. A Quinnipiac University poll taken from Oct. 26 to 30, right after the Maine shooting, found that 46 percent of registered voters worried about becoming a victim of a mass shooting themselves. That matches a high set in July 2022 in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting at Robb Elementary School, and is 9 points higher than a low of 37 percent in December 2017, the year the survey began asking the question.

Americans also feel pessimistic that anything will change. Indeed, 68 percent don’t believe the federal government will do anything to reduce gun violence within the next year, per the Quinnipiac poll.

Americans have wanted stricter gun control, and supported specific gun control measures, for decades, but the country has seen very little progress on the policy front, while the numbers of gun deaths and mass shootings continue to rise.

Most Americans continue to support stricter gun laws

A solid majority of Americans have supported stricter gun control laws during most of the years that Gallup has been tracking the issue, since 1990, with a dip in support during former President Barack Obama’s tenure. More than half have supported stricter gun control laws since 2015, and recent polls have shown public support hovering between 50 and 60 percent.

In September, a Verasight poll that found 58 percent favored stronger gun laws. And in late October, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control laws, an amount virtually unchanged from a year before.

Support for tighter gun control measures tends to spike after a mass shooting event and then fall back down to the prior level after the event has faded from the news, a pattern that began after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. (Though it’s worth noting that the correlation is most direct for school shootings, as opposed to high-profile shootings at other locations.)

There’s not enough evidence yet to say whether public opinion following the Lewiston event will follow that pattern, but early surveys seem to show public opinion holding stable. The Quinnipiac poll found results in line with previous polls, with 57 percent of respondents supporting stricter gun laws. A YouGov/Economist survey has asked adults whether they think laws governing the sale of handguns should be more strict periodically over the past year. Support has varied between a low of 53 percent last November and a high of 58 percent in January. The latest survey, which ran from Oct. 28 to the 31, right after the Lewiston shooting, showed support for stricter laws at 55 percent, still within that range and 2 points lower than the most recent survey in May.

Specific gun control policies also remain popular

Drilling down, even more registered voters show support for specific measures. The Quinnipiac poll found that 52 percent supported a nationwide ban on assault-style rifles, the kind of legislation Golden had previously voted against, compared with 44 percent who opposed it. An overwhelming majority, 92 percent, supported background checks on all gun buyers, 56 percent opposed the sale of high-capacity magazines, and 53 percent thought the United States would be less safe if more people carried guns. These numbers are consistent with other polls, and with Quinnipiac polling that on some questions goes back at least a decade; American voters have wanted stricter gun control laws for a long time.

About 70 percent of Americans also favor red flag laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, according to an Associated Press/NORC poll from Aug. 10-14. There’s a lot of evidence that, particularly in the case of mass shootings, many shooters talk about their plans or raise alarms with family and friends, and interventions in those cases can be successful.

Bipartisan gun control legislation signed by President Joe Biden last year was meant to encourage states to pass such red flag laws, and two states (Minnesota and Michigan) have since enacted them, joining 19 states that already had them in place. But those laws can be difficult to enforce. Maine has a less-strict version known as a yellow flag law. Notably, family members and military officials had contacted local law enforcement under that law to raise concerns regarding the Lewiston gunman, Army reservist Robert Card, but law enforcement failed to make contact with him.

These kinds of shootings, especially at schools, have been regular events for a generation now, beginning with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. In a September NPR/Ipsos poll on active shooter drills, 40 percent of respondents named gun violence as one of their top concerns for K-12 schools. The same survey found that majorities favored social and emotional school safety measures like anti-bullying programs and mental health education over training measures like training teachers to carry guns and active shooter drills.

Slow progress might be setting the movement back

Despite cycles of high-profile activism, including the student-led March for Our Lives launched after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, not much progress has been made on the policy front. Many of the most popular measures didn’t make it into the 2022 bipartisan gun safety law, the first major federal gun control measure passed in nearly 30 years. That could explain why we have yet to see renewed attention on the issue since Lewiston, the deadliest mass shooting since that law was enacted.

The 68 percent of Americans who didn’t think the federal government will do anything about curbing gun violence within the next year is up from the 56 percent who said the same in June 2022, right before Biden signed the gun control law. Biden has said that law didn’t go far enough, but the partisan split in support for some gun control measures may keep many Republican lawmakers from working on more serious reform. The AP/NORC poll found that Republican support dropped after Biden signed the law, from 49 percent last summer to 32 percent this summer.

Ultimately, the decades of slow progress and occasional setbacks in gun control policy seem to have left many Americans more worried about gun violence, but less confident that something will be done.

Other polling bites

  • During last Tuesday’s elections, voters in Ohio passed a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use, 57 to 43 percent. But it’s not just Ohio: Support for legalizing marijuana is at an all-time high of 70 percent, according to Gallup. The survey found majority support across all age groups and ideologies, including from 52 percent of self-identified conservatives. Legalization is equally popular in the 23 states and District of Columbia where it was legal before Ohio’s vote and in states where it’s not.
  • Americans are feeling especially glum about the economy, according to the CivicScience Economic Sentiment Index, which fell to its lowest point in over a year. Four of the five measures that contribute to the index — confidence in personal finances, confidence in making a new purchase, confidence in buying a new home, and confidence in finding a new job — all fell slightly compared to the last survey taken two weeks prior. (Answers to the five questions are ranked on a 100-point scale.) The final metric, confidence in the overall U.S. economy, rose slightly. Economic measures remain top of mind for voters as well. A CBS News poll taken before last week’s Republican primary debate found that 92 percent of Republican primary voters said it was very important to them to hear about candidates’ plans to reduce inflation. And a majority of Republican voters, 52 percent, say getting inflation or increasing costs under control is one of their top concerns in our latest 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll.
  • Approval for Biden is low overall, but on the foreign policy front, 63 percent disapprove of how he is handling the Israel-Palestine conflict, according to an AP-NORC poll. That includes 46 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans disapproving. That poll also found that 44 percent of Americans see Israel as an “ally that shares U.S. interests and values,” up from 32 percent in August, and two-thirds feel that Hamas bears a lot of responsibility for the conflict. A Cygnal poll found that 47 percent of Americans supported sending weapons, financial aid or both to Israel; for Ukraine, the number was 53 percent, but support was significantly higher among Democrats than Republicans.

Mary Radcliffe and Cooper Burton contributed research.