This week's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech is focusing new attention on Americans' relationship with guns.
Internationally, critics have decried America's "gun culture," and gun-control advocates are trying to seize the momentum. Supporters of gun rights have pointed to the dangers of abridging the constitutional right to bear arms.
But quietly, American attitudes toward firearms have shifted. Gun ownership is at the lowest level in three decades, and support for the regulation of firearms, which is always been high, has reached a new peak, according to one new poll. Some of the biggest supporters of gun-control are teenagers and college students.
For instance, 88 percent of high school students polled by Hamilton College in 2006 supported a five-day waiting period for a hand-gun purchase. The reason, say researchers, is their own experience with guns.
"They've seen a lot of gun violence in ways that kind of frighten them," says Dennis Gilbert, professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Something like 35 percent of high school seniors in 2006 knew someone who'd been shot at or threatened with a gun. That's more than 1 in 3, and it was a national survey, not just of urban areas."
Rising support for gun control doesn't mean that stiffer laws are right around the corner, observers say. Indeed, in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, which led to 33 fatalities, most politicians on each side of the issue are avoiding it for now.
But gun advocates contend that the brutal shooting could have been stopped or at least contained if other students had been allowed to carry weapons. And, pointing to the relaxation of gun laws in a majority of states over the past decade since the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., they assert that public opinion is on their side.
But academic researchers who study public opinion have reached a very different conclusion. On April 10, for example, less than a week before the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago released a report that found that gun ownership continues to decline as support for firearms control is rising.
Gun ownership in modern America reached a peak in the mid-1970s when 55 percent of American households reported owning a gun, according to the NORC study. In 2006, that share had dropped to 35 percent. Researchers attribute the change to two things: fewer people hunt as a recreational activity and, as the crime rate dropped during the 1990s, fewer people felt the need for a gun to protect themselves.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, some criminologists had speculated that fear created by the amorphous nature of the terrorist threat would cause support for gun control to drop, as more people felt the need to arm themselves against potential attackers. But the NORC study found that the opposite was true for more than 75 percent of those polled.
"The vast majority of Americans supported the idea that 9/11 increased the need for regulation of firearms," says Tom Smith, director of the NORC in a taped interview released with the study. "Support for regulation of firearms – for example, requiring a police permit before the purchase of a firearm – is very high [at 79 percent and] did not decline at all because of 9/11."
Gun advocates question those results, noting that the way polls are worded can affect the outcome. Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America notes that a 2002 ABC News poll found that "almost three-fourths of the American public believe that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects the rights of individuals to own guns."
That finding is not inconsistent with either the NORC or the Hamilton College studies. For instance, the Hamilton study found that 81 percent of high school students believe the Second Amendment creates a constitutional right to own guns. But two-thirds of them also believe that that right should be regulated.
Mr. Pratt counters that the only poll that really counts are elections. "The ultimate survey comes every two years, and gun control doesn't do well at the polls and the Democrats have finally figured that out," he says.
Indeed, a number of the Democrats just elected to Congress ran on pro-gun platforms. And when Americans are asked directly whether they approve the use of guns to save lives, they agree, Pratt adds. He points to a Research 2000 poll in 2002 that found that 85 percent of Americans would find it appropriate for a principal or teacher to use "a gun at school to defend the lives of students" to stop a school massacre.
Gun-control advocates argue that supporting a person using a gun to stop a massacre does not translate into 85 percent of Americans believing that teachers in the classroom should be armed.
The reason overwhelming support for gun control found in opinion polls has not translated into support for gun-control advocates during elections is that gun owners are more passionate about the issue than the general public, says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. "While there is public support on our side, the National Rifle Associations' hard-core supporters have the boots on the ground – which means they are the vocal minority that makes sure their voice is heard when their member in Congress comes home to their district."
He says the Virginia Tech shootings may cause gun-control supporters to become more engaged.