How current events might play into America's shift in favor of gun rights

For the first time, a Pew survey found more support for gun ownership than gun control among Americans. Current events like the Michael Brown case may be accelerating the trend, a gun control advocate says.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
A pink assault rifle hangs among others at an exhibit booth at the George R. Brown convention center, the site for the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting in Houston, Texas, in 2013. A Pew study found that more Americans now support gun rights than gun control, with women among those showing the biggest shifts.

A dramatic swing in public opinion when it comes to guns and gun control may be driven by current events – particularly high-profile police killings in Staten Island, N.Y., and Ferguson, Mo., a gun control advocate says.

In 2012, 48 percent of Americans in a Pew survey said guns do more to protect people than place them at risk. According to a survey released Wednesday, that number has increased to 57 percent.

The shift was even more substantial among African-Americans, going from 29 percent in early 2013 to 54 percent now (though with a margin of error of almost 10 percent due to a small sample size). 

In addition, Pew said that for the first time, it found more support for gun ownership than gun control in more than two decades of conducting the surveys.

The shift in views makes for grim reading for gun control advocates, who, according to Pew, have lost support among every demographic except Hispanics and liberal Democrats. City-dwellers, women, and blacks moved particularly hard toward a view put forth by pro-gun rights researcher John Lott: that an armed society is a polite society.

The new figures also come at a time when experts say high-profile police shootings have raised questions, especially in minority communities, about whether government and its agents can be trusted to protect individuals.

“Those of us inside [the gun control movement] sometimes focus too much on what’s important to us, and [the Pew survey suggests] that we need to get out of that box and think more about, ‘What’s the average person thinking in terms of whether they should buy a gun?’” says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, in Washington. 

That includes the realization, he says, that changes in attitudes about gun ownership may be tied to “a number of factors at play in the current news cycle that suggests a diminishing confidence in law enforcement, and lessening of faith in government … to protect them.”

In The Washington Post’s The Fix, Aaron Blake writes that polls have long shown a trend toward gun rights among Americans. The one exception was in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings in December 2012.

“It's a lesson to be learned as we all confront what's going to happen after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island at the hands of police officers,” Blake writes.

The new study was pegged as a “substantial shift in attitudes” by Pew, but some gun rights proponents say the findings should come as no surprise, given the steady march over the past two decades by the courts, interest groups, and individual Americans toward a more generous view toward firearms, even in an age that seems to many beset by needless gun violence. 

“The turnaround on this over the past 20 years has been astonishing, and should serve as a lesson to people who think we can’t see a sea-change on a civil rights issue, even when the media is overwhelmingly opposed,” writes University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds on his popular Instapundit blog. “In truth, after a few decades of ’60s induced hysteria, America is simply returning to its traditionally liberal attitudes toward guns, and weapons in general.”

As the anniversary of Newtown approaches on Dec. 14, groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety have pointed at findings that show there have been nearly 100 school-related shootings in the US in the two years since Adam Lanza killed 26 elementary school students and teachers in the deadliest mass shooting at a public school in US history.

And not every one is convinced of the accuracy of the study. Critics suggest Pew made a false equivalency by framing the question as a tradeoff between more personal freedom and more government restrictions. They point to other polls that have found large majorities of Americans support so-called “common sense” proposals that limit ownership for people with questionable backgrounds.

“Pew’s question presents one side emphasizing the protection of individual rights versus restricting gun ownership,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in a statement. “The question’s implicit and incorrect assumption is that regulations of gun sales infringe on gun owners’ rights and control their ability to own guns.”

Pew’s methodology did not change between 2012 and 2014.

To be sure, the NRA plays a role in massaging the public’s attitudes on weapons. The organization began last year to reach out to minorities and Millennials with new Internet campaigns featuring, for example, a black lawyer and YouTube provocateur named Colion Noir. 

But the shift can’t be credited wholesale to the NRA’s advocacy. In fact, the new survey comes as gun control groups are flush with historic amounts of money amid support from former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

And with that new clout and public support, gun control groups have scored significant victories in the wake of Newtown, including several states passing tough gun control bills, and voters in Washington State in November agreeing by referendum to close the so-called “gun show loophole” that allowed private sales without background checks.

But those inside the gun rights movement suggest that the attitude shift among African-Americans reflected by Pew has less to do with current events and more with an intellectual movement that has been challenging antigun orthodoxy in the black community for nearly 20 years.

The Rev. Kenn Blanchard, author of “Black Man With a Gun: Reloaded,” argues that the Pew findings represent a generational shift in the black community, where “all the old heads say this [pro-gun] stuff is the devil, [but] the new guys are, like, ‘I don’t think so.’”

He adds: “There’s a racial divide, too, that the anti-gun people have been using to suggest that white people don’t want black people to have firearms. But what I see are my white brothers, the old geezers, who are saying to the younger black generation: ‘Here’s a gun, I’ll show you how to shoot it.’”

Pew also finds that its survey numbers are driven in large part by shifting perceptions in the population, suggesting that what's in pop culture can drive survey results. Example: While gun violence has trended steadily downward since 1993 (to nearly half the rate), 56 percent of respondents think gun violence is higher now than in 1993. 

The extent to which such attitudes affected the Pew findings is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain.

But more generally, the survey had “valuable data … that we need to take very seriously,” says Mr. Everitt, whose organization was the only gun violence prevention group that waded into the debate over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. “We have to understand that, as an organization that advocates for changes in the law, we need to be stewards of accountable, good government, and that’s hard when people see government not acting in the public’s best interest.”

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