President Joe Biden signed a sweeping gun control bill into law over the weekend that aims to prevent future massacres like the one that occurred in Uvalde, Texas, a month ago. The new law enhances background checks for young would-be gun buyers, encourages states to pass so-called “red flag” laws, and devotes some money to improving school security.
The May 24 attack on a Uvalde elementary school that killed 19 students and two teachers created a wave of anger across America over gun violence in schools. Parents wondered not just about how a young deranged man could carry out such a horrendous crime, but also about the failures of local school officials and the local police to better protect students.
The June I&I/TIPP Poll, taken online from June 8-10, asked a random sample of 1,310 adults the following question: “How effective will the following actions be in making U.S. schools safer?”
Those responding were given six possible responses.
Two of the possible responses tied for No. 1 in terms of effectiveness: “Increasing school security (uniformed police officers, private armed security, etc.)”, and “Increasing background checks for gun buyers,” both at 81%.
A close second was the response “screening of gun buyers for mental illness,” with 80%.
Further down the list, but still above 50%, came “Raising the minimum age for purchasing a firearm,” 71%; “Banning semi-automatic rifles,” 65%; and the least favorite, “Providing weapons and weapons training for teachers,” 58%.
But even broad agreement can mask specific differences, especially with such a politically charged issue as guns and gun control.
For instance, “banning semi-automatic rifles” is the most politically polarizing of all the responses. While 86% of Democrats called this effective, just 42% of Republicans did, and 61% of independents.
While they get the most media coverage, “semi-automatic” rifles, even if banned, would likely have little impact on overall gun deaths. As a report from Pew Research earlier this year found:
In 2020, handguns were involved in 59% of the 13,620 U.S. gun murders and non-negligent manslaughters for which data is available, according to the FBI. Rifles – the category that includes guns sometimes referred to as ‘assault weapons’ – were involved in 3% of firearm murders. Shotguns were involved in 1%.
So regulating semi-automatic rifles is unlikely to have a major impact.
Giving weapons and training to teachers was another issue where significant political differences arose. While 72% of Republicans favored this move, only 52% of Democrats and 55% of independents agreed.
Least polarizing suggestion? Better and more security at schools. That was the only answer in which both major political parties and the independents were all within 10 percentage points of one another in their responses.
And, despite the media playing up differences among Americans, whites and blacks and Hispanics were very close in how they answered the poll questions. Indeed, the average difference between whites and blacks/Hispanics for all questions asked was just over 3 percentage points — barely outside the poll’s +/-2.8 percentage-point margin of error.
So on these issues, Americans aren’t divided. They’re united, regardless of race.
Indeed, even the male-female split was larger than the one between races. On average, male-female answers differed by just over 5 percentage points.
What’s clear is that Americans believe that not enough is being done to prevent such attacks from happening. While it’s true that armed attacks on schools such as the one in Uvalde are actually not as common as they seem, that doesn’t lessen the fears of parents or assuage the grief of those who lost children in a school attack.
One oft-repeated criticism of policy proposals is that they mostly target weapons, not the actual people that use them to commit heinous crimes.
To that end, the I&I/TIPP survey showed that policies such as increased background checks and screening gun-buyers for mental illness — which both focus on keeping mentally unstable people from committing such crimes — garner broad support.
In virtually every recent case of someone shooting up a school, there were ample signs that the person or persons who did it were a danger to the community. But no one intervened. Or the signs were ignored.
Research from The Violence Project, a nonprofit research group, has found that the average age of those engaged in school attacks is about 18, with 56% having been bullied in the past, and 62% showing indications of mental illness.
In response, some have proposed enacting “red flag laws,” or “Extreme Risk Protection Orders,” which let judges take away a person’s guns without a trial, based only on a written complaint that the person is a danger to him- or herself, or to others.
The truth is, all 50 states and the federal government already have laws on the books that let people who are a threat be committed and have their guns taken from them. And red flag laws bypass due process, ignoring that there are already laws to disarm those who are deranged or merely dangerous.
The question is, in a time when many district attorneys are letting hardened felons and mentally ill criminals back on the streets, whether even red flag laws would be enough. Laws that aren’t enforced aren’t really laws at all.
Each month, I&I/TIPP publishes timely and informative data from our polls on this topic and others of interest. TIPP’s reputation for excellence has come from being the most accurate pollster for the past five presidential elections.
Terry Jones is an editor of Issues & Insights. His four decades of journalism experience include serving as national issues editor, economics editor, and editorial page editor for Investor’s Business Daily.