Gun culture still strong in the US, polls find. But that may be changing

Although many Americans favor robust gun rights, an ongoing demographic shift could over time tip the balance toward greater support for gun safety legislation, some experts say.

Ryan Kang/AP/File
In this Oct. 9, 2015 file photo, Michael Johnson wears a firearm as he waits outside of Roseburg Municipal Airport for President Obama's arrival in Roseburg, Ore.

Strong criticism from gun control advocates over the past year – which came amid a spate of mass shootings nationwide – has done little to dampen Americans’ support for the National Rifle Association (NRA) or opposition to tighter gun control measures, two new surveys have found.

A majority of US adults continue to have a favorable opinion of the NRA, a new Gallup poll found, while more than half of Americans now oppose stricter gun control laws, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

The findings indicate that gun culture is a fixture of American society – though some experts say that an ongoing demographic shift could over time tip the balance toward greater support for gun safety legislation.

"Gun rights have gained steam in recent years, in part because the Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to have a gun," writes Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law, in an e-mail. "Yet the NRA still should be concerned about long-term demographic shifts in the American population. The demographic composition of our current society is hospitable to the NRA. In the future, it may not be."

In the Gallup poll, released Thursday, 58 percent of US adults have a favorable opinion of the NRA. That figure includes the highest reported rate of “very favorable” opinions of the NRA – 26 percent – since Gallup began asking the question in 1989.

“Gun ownership is something based upon the Constitution and has been misconstrued by other people and other parties,” says Bill Collins, a cattle rancher and avid hunter in Fort Riley, Kan. “We need someone like the NRA to protect our right to gun ownership.”

The CNN/ORC poll, published Wednesday, found that 52 percent of Americans now oppose stricter gun control laws, an increase of three percentage points since June.

“The Second Amendment clearly states ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,’ ” writes John Gibson of Lake Jackson, Texas, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Pro-gun Americans like me strongly oppose new unconstitutional gun control schemes and will fight gun control every way possible.”

Such a culture of support for the right to bear arms is one result of the country's formative years, as some experts see it.

“America grew up on guns,” writes Craig Whitney, a former New York Times editor and author on gun control, in his 2012 book, “Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment.” “Americans identify themselves in part by metaphors and symbols based on firearms, and myths whose power derives from their basis in truth – the shot heard 'round the world, the Minutemen who won (or at least started) the Revolutionary War, Wild Bill Hickok and the gunslingers who tamed the West.”

In today's gun culture, the possibility of it having a responsible component isn't ruled out, other experts argue.

“Americans ... have a very stiff attitude around the right to bear arms. But that is in no way incompatible with the idea that most citizens, including gun owners, believe that ... we should make sure everyone has a ‘common sense’ attitude towards gun safety,” says Saul Cornell, chair of American history at Fordham University in New York and an expert on Second Amendment issues. “Most Americans value the right to have a gun, as well as the fundamental regulations that make them safe.”

Over the long term, some see an overall shift in opinion on guns as inevitable due to the nation's changing demographics.

“The core of the NRA’s support comes from white, rural and relatively less educated voters,” wrote Professor Winkler in a Monday op-ed for The Washington Post. “This demographic is currently influential in politics but clearly on the wane.”

In August, the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of blacks and 75 percent of Hispanics favor gun control over the right to own arms, compared with 40 percent of whites.

“Racial minorities are soon to be a majority, and they are the nation’s strongest supporters of strict gun laws,” wrote Winkler, the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

Some experts, however, caution against oversimplifying the gun debate on the basis of poll results.

“Polling data is highly sensitive to how questions are asked and how they relate to the news cycle,” Professor Cornell says. “Americans have complicated and contradictory attitudes around guns” that are rarely captured in survey questions, he adds, noting that a Brooklyn native would see guns differently from someone from Montana.

Emphasis on potential points of agreement – such as preventing people with severe mental health issues from obtaining firearms – is also crucial to moving gun discourse forward, Cornell says.

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