Americans want strict gun laws after mass shootings. Then their interest fades.

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Story highlights

  • Pew Research found 83% of those surveyed said US gun violence is a big problem
  • The divide comes when Americans are asked what to do about it, that poll found

Washington (CNN)It's an all-too-familiar pattern in American politics: In the wake of mass shootings, support for stricter gun laws spikes temporarily. But that shift in public opinion largely fades over time, and Congress doesn't pass anything.

The inaction bubbled into outbursts of frustration from Democrats on Monday, after at least 58 people were killed in a Las Vegas shooting.
"The thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference," said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading gun control advocate since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012. "It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something."
    If this shooting follows the trend of others in recent years, public support for stricter gun control laws will spike temporarily -- and then that jump will mostly evaporate in the months ahead.
    The most recent in-depth public polling on gun control that wasn't conducted in the wake of a mass shooting comes from the Pew Research Center, via two surveys conducted this spring.
    Among the highlights from that poll and others conducted in recent years:

    People agree there's a problem, but...

    Pew found that 83% said they consider gun violence in the US a big problem -- including 50% who called it "a very big problem."
    The divide comes when Americans -- 47% of whom said they consider the right to own a gun essential to their sense of freedom -- are asked what to do about it.
    How about making it harder to obtain guns? Almost half, 47%, said there would be fewer mass shootings if it were harder for people to legally obtain guns in the United States, while 39% said that wouldn't make a difference, and 13% said it would lead to more mass shootings.
    One example of how difficult it is to build public support for stricter gun laws came last year in Nevada, where a ballot measure to expand gun background checks was approved -- but barely, winning 50.4% support to 49.6% opposition out of more than 1.1 million votes cast. That vote came despite Pew finding 65% of Americans support background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
    Some other areas of seeming agreement: 68% told Pew they favor a ban on assault-style weapons, while 64% favor banning high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

    Huge partisan splits

    The partisan divide over guns starts with ownership: 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents own guns, compared to just 20% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
    Even among gun owners, the differences are stark: 91% of Republican gun owners say owning a firearm is essential to their freedom vs. 43% of Democratic gun owners. The majority of Democratic gun owners say they never carry theirs; 63% of Republican gun owners say they carry theirs at least some of the time.
    Democrats, Pew found, are far more likely than Republicans to describe gun violence as a very big problem. Democrats overwhelmingly favor creating a federal database to track gun sales, banning assault-style weapons and banning high-capacity magazines, while Republicans broadly oppose those measures.
    Republicans, meanwhile, are about twice as likely as Democrats to favor allowing concealed carry in more places (82% to 41%) and allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns (81% to 42%).

    Divided views of the NRA

    Democrats see the National Rifle Association -- the leading lobbying group against all forms of stricter gun laws -- as a bogeyman in the debate over gun control.
    But the general public is much more divided on the NRA. Forty-four percent of those polled told Pew the NRA has too much influence over gun laws in the United States, while 15% said it has too little influence and 40% said it has the right amount of influence.

    Spikes after mass shootings

    Support for stricter gun laws tends to spike in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings.
    In a CNN poll in June 2016, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting, 55% said they favored stricter gun control laws, 42% were opposed. That was up from 46% who felt that way in fall 2015 and the highest share to say so since January 2013, about a month after the Sandy Hook shootings.
    There were sharp partisan divides on whether gun laws should be tightened, with 78% of Democrats in favor of more restrictive laws while 68% of Republicans opposed them. Independents tilted in favor of stricter laws, 53% to 44%.
    The same poll found 54% in favor of a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault rifles and 54% behind a ban on sale and possession of high-capacity magazines.
    The most recent public polling on the topic comes from Quinnipiac University, this June, just after the shooting at a congressional baseball team's practice. That poll found 57% of registered voters felt it was too easy to buy a gun in the US today, 6% said it was too difficult and 32% say it's about right. That poll also found that 57% felt the US would be less safe if more people carried guns and 35% thought the country would be safer.
    But Gallup's long-term trend shows that while support for stricter gun laws generally increases after mass shootings, much of that bump eventually fades.
    In the spring, Pew found that 52% said gun laws in the country should be more strict than they are today, while 18% said gun laws should be less strict and 30% said they are about right -- giving those in favor of changing laws a narrow majority.