Support for gun rights is higher than it’s been in decades, according to the latest data from the Pew Research Center that signals a stunning turnaround in how Americans feel about the issue just two years after the Newtown school shooting.
Pew found that 52 percent of Americans say Second Amendment rights are more important than gun control — up 7 percentage points from just after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 schoolchildren and six faculty dead.
That’s the highest approval rating in two decades, and it’s being driven in part by changing attitudes among black Americans, who are increasingly likely to view guns as good for public safety.
Pew found 54 percent of blacks now say firearms protect people from being victims of crimes, compared to 41 percent who say they are a public safety risk. Just two years ago, only 29 percent of blacks said guns were a public safety boon.
“Over the past two years, blacks’ views on this measure have changed dramatically,” Pew researchers said.
The changes are all the more stunning given the direction the debate appeared to be going two years ago, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother, then drove to the elementary school where he fatally shot 26 people, then turned the gun on himself to commit suicide.
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President Obama called for major new restrictions on gun rights in the wake of the shooting, asking Congress to enact a bill to subject more gun purchases to background checks and to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style rifles. But gun rights supporters rallied, blocking those efforts in the Senate and leaving the matter stalled.
Some states acted in lieu of federal action, but Democrats on Capitol Hill said Wednesday they remain committed to imposing new restrictions.
“It is imperative that we act,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at an event to commemorate the Newtown shooting. “We must stick with this.”
Gun control supporters said other polling still shows strong support for specific changes. Requiring universal background checks garners support of about 90 percent of Americans, while support for limits on rifles and ammunition magazines hovers just above 50 percent.
Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said Pew’s findings reflect a sharp partisan divide on the issue, but also said the wording of the survey might have influenced the results. The survey asked whether it was more important to “control gun ownership” or “protect the right of Americans to own guns.”
“The notion of having ‘rights’ is certainly going to be more appealing than the notion of being ‘controlled,’ no matter what topic you are asking respondents about,” he said in an email. “We’d be curious to see how the polling would look if Pew Research asked respondents if they believed they had ‘a right to be free from gun violence in their communities through the enactment of sensible gun legislation.’”
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Specific wording aside, Pew’s research suggested a shift over time. Support for gun control peaked at 66 percent in the late 1990s, or about the time of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and has dropped 20 percentage points since then.
The recent shift has also happened across nearly all demographic lines.
When posed a choice between supporting gun rights or gun controls, men and women, old and young, white and black and Republican and Democrat all saw their preference for Second Amendment rights increase over the last two years.
African-Americans’ support for gun rights rose from 24 percent to 34 percent, and whites’ backing rose from 53 percent to 61 percent. Only Hispanics saw a drop in their support for gun rights, slipping 2 percentage points to 25 percent, or lower than blacks’ level of support.
While Democrats still generally back gun controls, with just 28 percent supporting gun rights, majorities of both Republicans and independents say the Second Amendment trumps their desire for more controls.