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Public opinion on guns shifting after Connecticut shooting

December 17, 2012|By Paul West

Public attitudes toward guns -- and the views of some prominent Washington politicians -- are changing in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre. But it’s too early to know how far the shifts may go, how long they might last or whether they could alter the prospects for approval of additional gun control measures.

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll, released Monday, found that a majority of Americans (54%) support stricter gun control laws, while 43% are opposed.  That’s the highest support for greater gun control in the ABC/Post survey since 2007. But during the 1990s, support for stricter gun laws was significantly higher, fluctuating between 63% and 67%.

White House strategists and politicians in both parties are on the alert for any significant changes in public attitudes on the gun issue. President Obama has offered a vague pledge of action on gun control, and his spokesman said Monday only that steps would be taken “in coming weeks.”

FULL COVERAGE: Shooting at Connecticut school

But the words of a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin, considered something of a weather vane on political issues, surprised many in Washington. Manchin, in an appearance Monday on MSNBC and in a prepared statement from his office, called for public action in the wake of the Newtown shootings, arguing that “everything should be on the table.”  The pro-gun lawmaker aired a 2010 campaign ad in which he used a rifle to blast a copy of Obama’s energy legislation and proudly promoted his National Rifle Association endorsement as a seal of approval.     

Also on Monday, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire revealed, in a shift, that she now supports an assault weapons ban.  Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, an author of the 1994 ban that expired 10 years later, has said she’ll introduce a new assault ban measure on the first day the new Congress convenes next month.

Still, the country remains closely divided on guns -- as on many other issues. Support for stronger gun laws remains well below levels recorded during the 1990s, the decade in which a ban on assault-style weapons narrowly eked through Congress.

PHOTOS: Connecticut school shooting

The Connecticut school shootings -- and saturation coverage of the tragedy and its innocent young victims -- do appear to have produced a dramatic shift in the way Americans view such incidents.

A new national survey found that adult Americans are more inclined to say that the latest killings reflected broader problems in society and were not merely the actions of a troubled individual.

That’s a marked change from polling conducted after the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded, or the July 2012 shooting rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.  In both of those cases, the vast majority of Americans questioned (58% and 67%, respectively) saw the mass killings as isolated actions of troubled individuals, according to a report released Monday by the independent Pew Research Center.

In the case of the Connecticut tragedy, however, a plurality (47%) said the shootings reflected broader problems in society, while 44% attributed the killings mainly to a troubled individual. Similarly, the ABC/Post poll showed that a majority of Americans (52%) thought the Sandy Hook school shootings reflected broader problems in American society, while 43% called it the isolated act of a troubled individual.

WHO THEY WERE: Shooting victims

According to Pew’s report, women, college graduates and Democrats were more likely to see the shootings as a reflection of societal problems, while men, Republicans and those ages 18-29 viewed them more as isolated acts of individuals.

The Pew poll found that 57% of Americans said they had followed news of the Connecticut shootings very closely. That’s a higher level of public interest than the shootings in Aurora last summer (49%) but less than the 68% who very closely followed the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colo.

A total of 746 adults were surveyed by Pew between Friday and Sunday. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The ABC/Post poll, conducted during the same period, surveyed 602 adults and had an error margin of 4.5 points.

paul.west@latimes.com

twitter.com/paulwestdc

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