Gun-rights advocates have had tremendous success in courtrooms across the country as of late, but have they ceded ground in the court of public opinion?
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Wednesday found the highest number of Americans in more than a decade who say the need to defend gun rights is less important than reducing gun violence. It found 60 percent of Americans now think controlling gun violence is more important, including 55 percent of self-described political independents, while just 38 percent say the opposite. That’s a significant change from 2013, the year the poll first began asking this question, when the public was evenly split on the question. The percentage of respondents who moved away from prioritizing gun rights steadily increased each year in between.
That’s a troubling sign if you’re a gun-rights supporter.
The phrasing of the poll question limits the implications to some degree. Gun-rights advocates may argue that defending gun rights and combatting gun violence are not mutually exclusive. But the troubling signs extend beyond just that one question. The same poll found that 62 percent of Americans react to mass shootings by calling for stricter gun laws, up three percentage points from 2019.
And it’s not the result of a skewed sample of people generally opposed to gun rights. The same poll found that nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults support “stand-your-ground” laws. That percentage was actually up three percentage points since 2019, and it included the support of more than 80 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Independents. The same poll also identified a ten-percentage point increase in the number of Americans who say they think more people should carry guns to combat mass shootings.
That means even as the vast majority of people have come to support robust public self-defense rights, and more people want to expand gun carry to defend against public attackers, the public is souring on the idea of protecting gun rights more broadly.
The diverging results in support for self-defense protections versus gun rights suggest the electorate is currently struggling with how best to balance support for personal protection and public safety at a time when murder rates and the pace of mass shootings are increasing to record levels. Other recent data provides support for that theory.
An April Fox News poll found that “gun control/violence” has rocketed up the list of priorities for voters in a way that it has not been in years past. That poll found that the issue trailed only the economy and inflation in order of importance in voters’ minds. It also found that a majority of Americans report being extremely or very concerned that they or a loved one will be a victim of gun violence.
This rising concern has also begun to show itself in the political arena. There have now been several recent examples of red-state politicians unexpectedly backing gun control proposals in the face of public outcry over mass shootings.
In the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R.) issued an executive order designed to boost gun background checks and, most notably, has been front-and-center in promoting a version of a red-flag law for his state. This is despite Lee representing one of the most conservative and gun-friendly states in the country.
Likewise, two Republican Texas state representatives voted in favor of a bill that would have banned the sale of semi-automatic rifles to adults under the age of 21 earlier this month. One of those representatives, Justin Holland, touted his “A” rating from the NRA and his past support for Texas’ permitless carry and “Second Amendment sanctuary” laws before explaining that after listening to public outcry from Uvalde shooting survivors and family members he “became convinced that this small change to the law might serve as a significant roadblock to a young person (not old enough to buy tobacco or alcohol) acquiring a specific type of semiautomatic rifle intent upon using it in a destructive and illegal manner.”
The fact that Republican politicians in states like Texas and Tennessee have started to feel compelled to support certain gun-control measures despite facing blowback from gun-rights advocates and members of their own party suggests that the polling data reflects something very real happening in the political landscape. The trend is modest for now, but the polling atmosphere indicates it could keep growing.
While gun rights advocates may continue to rack up legal wins in the courtroom, if they aren’t more attentive to the public mood, they run the risk of losing serious ground in the electoral space.