New poll shows why it's so hard to make America's gun laws more strict

·West Coast Correspondent
·5 min read

The number of Americans who think the U.S. should “make gun laws more strict” (47%) is three times higher than the number who think the U.S. should “make gun laws less strict” (14%), according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

And even more — a full two-thirds (68%) — favor “requiring criminal and mental background checks for all those buying guns, including at gun shows or private sales,” including 56% of Republicans. Just 18% of Americans are opposed.

The survey of 1,573 U.S. adults was conducted from May 19 to 22 — days after a white supremacist shot and killed 10 Black shoppers at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket and before a second gunman shot and killed at least 19 students and two adults Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

As such, it underscores both the continuing challenges and the possible paths forward in combating U.S. gun violence.

Cindy Nell of Prince Georges County, Md.
Cindy Nell of Prince Georges County, Md., holds a list of school shootings since 1998 at a demonstration at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

The basic contours of public opinion are clear. Few Americans favor further loosening U.S. gun laws, which are already the most permissive in the world. And the vast majority support precisely the sort of universal background-check law that passed the U.S. House last year but has not come up for a vote in the gridlocked Senate.

Yet the mass shootings continue, and nothing changes.

“What are we doing? What are we doing?” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked his fellow lawmakers Tuesday. “Why do you spend all this time running for the United States Senate? Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job if your answer is that as this slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives, we do nothing?”

Some roadblocks — including Republican politicians funded by the National Rifle Association and Democratic politicians who refuse to reform the Senate filibuster — are familiar. But public opinion plays a part as well.

An anti-gun-violence activist
An anti-gun-violence activist at the site of a recent shooting in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

There is a third camp of Americans in addition to those who want gun laws to be stricter or less strict: the ones who are fine with the status quo (28%). Combined with the less-strict crowd, they make up 42% of the population, only slightly less than the 47% who think the U.S. should make gun laws stricter. The divide is even closer — 47% more strict vs. 44% less strict or the same — among registered voters. So even though stricter gun laws enjoy plurality support, the margin by which they enjoy that support is fairly small — the result being that pressure on politicians is relatively weak.

Even after Buffalo, for instance, just 5% of voters said guns were “the most important issue to [them] when thinking about this year’s election.”

Further diluting the politics of guns is the fact that nearly all support for stricter laws is concentrated on the left, where nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%) favor such measures. Seven in 10 Republicans want laws to be less strict (24%) or the same (47%), and the number of independents who agree — 32% the same plus 13% less strict — is greater than the number who disagree (43% more strict). Without bipartisan backing, no new laws will survive the Senate.

A family grieves
A family grieves in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

These results, meanwhile, are nearly identical to the results from a March 2021 Yahoo News/YouGov poll that asked the same questions. New shootings don’t tend to change views on guns.

The final factor hindering progress on gun laws is ambivalence over their efficacy. A plurality of Americans (44%) again say that “there is a way to stop mass shootings in the U.S., but it would require drastic change in laws.” Yet the number who say that such shootings “can already be stopped by enforcing the current laws” (21%) or that “there is no way to stop” these shootings (20%) is almost as high. When asked directly if “stricter gun laws could have prevented the mass shooting in Buffalo,” more Americans say no (43%) than yes (37%).

What’s striking about this divide is how much of an outlier the U.S. is. Decades ago both Australia and the United Kingdom enacted strict gun laws after mass shootings of their own — and the problem was effectively eliminated.

In contrast, there are now an estimated 393 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S., the equivalent of 120 firearms per 100 citizens. That’s more than twice the per capita gun ownership rate of any other country in the world, and it means about a third of all the civilian guns on the planet belong to Americans. All told, more than 81 million Americans — an estimated 44% of all U.S. households — now own guns, with the average gun owner claiming five firearms for him- or herself. About 40 million guns are sold in the U.S. each year.

The toll of all these firearms is real. In Canada, 37% of all homicides involve guns. In Australia, that number is 13%; in the U.K., it is 4%.

In the U.S., it is 79%.

Flags fly at half-mast at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., in honor of the victims.
Flags fly at half-mast at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., in honor of the victims. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,573 U.S. adults interviewed online from May 19 to 22, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or nonvote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.8%.