In the last few years, gun advocates have made much of the fact that when pollsters ask people broad, non-specific questions about gun laws, like "In general, do you think gun control laws should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?", support for restrictions has gone down, in some cases below 50 percent. As I've discussed before, that doesn't mean that people ever stopped supporting specific restrictions like those we're now discussing, but there were enough polls confirming the decline in support for generalized "gun control" since the 1990s that we can be fairly sure the phenomenon was real. But now, new polling is showing increased support for restrictions. For instance, a CBS poll released the other day, which uses the text I just quoted, showed support for making laws more strict at 57 percent, an 18-point jump from when the question was asked in April and a 10-year high. A new CNN poll produced similar results, with 52 percent saying either that there should be major restrictions on guns or that all there should be no private ownership of guns at all.
So what exactly is going on, and where is opinion likely to go? I think the answer to the first question is only partly that many people were so horrified by the shooting in Newtown that they finally said enough is enough. Perhaps more importantly, people are being exposed to something they haven't seen in a long time: a two-sided debate on guns. Or actually, it's a debate where those favoring new restrictions are being heard more than the pro-gun side, at least for the moment (that won't last, though).
The prior movement in opinion away from gun restrictions isn't at all surprising, given the fact that for the last decade and a half there has been almost no national discussion about guns. The only voices being heard are those of gun advocates, who regularly warn that Democrats are coming to take away your granddad's hunting rifle and leave your family vulnerable to all manner of assault. The people who could have argued the other side were largely silent. So in the absence of elite signaling on guns from one side, public opinion shifted.
To see how this kind of thing can work, let's look at a pair of graphs from the classic study on this topic, John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Zaller's key insight was that the degree to which general public opinion lines up with elite opinion is a function of attention. If the elites are in agreement, the closer you pay attention to the news, the more likely you are to know that, and follow the leadership of your party. But if the elites begin to disagree, at first only the people who pay a lot of attention will realize it and move in response. He illustrates it with these two graphs, showing support for the Vietnam war in 1964—when both Democrats and Republicans in Congress supported the war—and 1970, by which time congressional Democrats had turned against it.
In the graph on the left, from 1964, there's a slight relationship between attention and support for the war for everybody. Even if you're a Democrat who might be inclined to think poorly of a war halfway across the world, if you're paying a lot of attention to politics, you saw the people in your party defending and justifying the war, and you came to agree with them. But by 1970, elite Democrats had changed their minds. If you were at a low level of awareness, you didn't really know that, which is why there was no difference between liberals and conservatives at low levels of awareness. But as you get higher levels of awareness, the two lines diverge, and those liberals who paid a great deal of attention had turned dramatically against the war. They've seen lots of Democratic politicians arguing criticizing the war, and it would have required a real cognitive leap for them to stick with Republicans on the question.
Every issue doesn't necessarily play out just like that one did. There are moments when the coverage of an event or a controversy is so enormous that everybody sees it, no matter whether we're talking about political junkies or people who barely pay attention to the news. That may have been the case with the Newtown shooting—it not only dominated the news, but it's something people have been discussing intently in social media, around dinner tables, and in offices ever since. But a lot of people who hadn't much thought about guns in years are now witnessing an actual debate about the subject, and are seeing where the politicians they like and dislike stand. So as Democrats unite around some new restrictions, the Democratic side of the electorate will probably unite behind them. If Republicans unite in opposition—which may or may not happen, depending on how they view the political risks involved—then the Republican electorate will probably unite behind them too.