In Las Vegas last week, a lone gunman armed with a small arsenal of powerful weapons opened fire from his 32nd-floor hotel windows onto a crowd of more than 20,000 concert-goers below. Before apparently killing himself, he killed, by last count, 58 people and wounded more than 500, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
We asked Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis Robert Blendon, who holds a joint appointment with the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to give some insight into public attitudes to gun violence and mass shootings and how those attitudes affect, or don’t, public policy.
Q: The number of deaths from guns has risen dramatically in the United States over the past several years. Mass shootings have also become almost daily occurrences. How does the American public view these problems (as a crime problem, a gun control problem, a public health issue, a national security issue)? Have attitudes changed over time to both the problem and the public response?
When Americans are asked in their own words following a mass shooting about the top problems facing the country, rarely is this issue on the top of Americans’ list of problems. Even though these tragic shootings impact Americans’ thinking about their lives and the safety of their communities, this does not substantially influence public views about the top issue facing the country. In describing it, the public uses terms like “crime,” “violence,” “terrorism,” and least frequently “guns/gun control.” They don’t describe it per se as a public health problem, but the policies they do favor after these mass shootings are of a public health nature – such as proposals that call for more thorough background checks for gun purchasers, creation of a federal database to track gun sales, restricting access to guns for those who are seen as high risk for committing these acts, and restricting the sale of certain types of weapons that might lead to large numbers of causalities (assault weapons, which are not well-defined). However, polls show considerable skepticism about the long-term impact of these proposals in reducing the number of mass shootings in the United States.
When Americans are asked in their own words what they believe is the main cause of gun violence in the United States, there is no consensus. In fact, the public lists nine reasons, and one in six point to the current availability of guns and current gun laws.
There has been some change in Americans’ views of laws covering the sale of firearms. There has been a marked decrease in those saying the laws should be “more strict,” from 78 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2016, but this change occurs as laws in many states and nationally have become more strict in certain areas.
Q: Events like the Las Vegas shootings create what appears outwardly as an enormous and emotional public response. Yet it is difficult to see any corresponding public policy response. Is there a dissonance between attitudes and policy on these issues?
The issue has to do not with public opinion per se, but with how the U.S. political system functions. People who oppose many of the gun control measures which are being debated are often more politically active than those who favor it, including in their frequency of voting, involvement in activist organizations, and making contributions to relevant organizations. Added to this is that proponents of gun control have mainly identified themselves with the Democratic party, and opponents mainly identify themselves with the Republican party, so party control of the Congress and state legislatures plays an important role in passing gun control legislation.
In addition, public support for gun control increases after mass shootings, as we’ve seen with the events in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, but this support declines over time.
Q: The Las Vegas shooting made headlines internationally. Do we know how an event like that shapes attitudes toward the United States?
Overall, polling of people from 37 countries shows that most hold a favorable view of Americans and of American pop culture. Though the U.S. is clearly different from most of these countries in its gun policies, views about this do not appear to be the dominant factor in shaping attitudes toward the United States. Recently, the most important factor in these countries’ views of the United States has been the contrasting favorability between former President Obama and President Trump. Since there were a number of mass shootings during Obama’s tenure, it appears they don’t have much impact on overall views of the United States.