In the aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, Florida last week, some of the student survivors are calling on Congress to pass legislation that would address gun violence in schools.
Their public calls raise an interesting question: Will there be a significant shift among the younger generation of today in favor of stricter regulation on guns?
It’s difficult to answer – few things in politics are static. It’s possible that the Parkland shooting and the efforts of the survivors will drive an uptick in support for gun control among young people and Americans overall. However, over the last 20 years, even as mass shootings have become more frequent, they have not led to a sustained period in which adults, or young adults specifically, became more in favor of gun control.
Those who are now 18 to 34 years old entered adulthood after school shootings became a frequent occurrence (i.e. since Columbine in 1999) and they are not significantly more in favor of gun control than the average American.
While any one survey result for a subsample that is as small as those under the age of 35 could be an outlier, the average of nine surveys tells us a lot. In the average survey, 50% of Americans said they were for stricter gun control. The same nine polls found on average that 49% of Americans under the age of 35 were for stricter gun control. In other words, the difference was statistically insignificant.
I also checked to see if more recent surveys during this five-year period suggested any sort of uptick in support for stricter gun control among younger adults. There wasn’t. The last four surveys conducted by CNN discovered that 50% of those under 35 were for stricter gun control. That’s identical to the 50% of all Americans who said they were for gun control in the same surveys.
There’s no sign in the Pew Research Center’s data either that younger adults are greatly more in favor of gun control than the average American. Pew asked respondents whether it’s more important “protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership.” During the eight times they asked it since 2013, 49% of adults said they thought it was more important to control gun ownership. In the same set of surveys, 52% of those under the age of 30 said it was more important to control ownership. Again, that’s not a statistically significant difference.
That young adults aren’t any more likely to be in favor of stricter gun laws than the average America is even more remarkable when you consider that young adults today are politically more liberal than young adults at the time of Columbine. In fact, mass shootings didn’t make young adults more in favor of gun control than the average American. It may have had the opposite effect.
In the five Pew surveys taken between 1999 and 2000 on gun control, an average of 70% of those under the age of 30 said that controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting the right for Americans to own guns. That’s 18 points higher than the percentage of those under the age of 30 who felt controlling gun ownership was more important over the last five years.
The fact that young adults today are less in favor of gun control isn’t too surprising, given the overall trend. Pew showed that 61% of all Americans thought it was more important to control gun ownership from 1999 to 2000 compared to 49% in the average poll since 2013.
Still, no other age group (30- to 49-year-olds, 50- to 64-year-olds and those 65 years old and older) had a drop of more than 10 percentage points in support of gun control from the 1999-2000 period compared to the last five years. The 18-point decline in support of gun control among those under 30 during that period is nearly double any other age group.
One area in which younger adults differ on guns than the rest of Americans is that slightly fewer of them own guns. According to a 2017 Pew study, 27% of those under the age of 30 own a gun compared to 30% of Americans overall. The General Social Survey (aggregated from 2014-2016 for a larger sample size) finds a somewhat wider gap: 13% of adults under 30 say they own a gun compared to 21% of all adults.
Even on gun ownership though, there is no trendline to indicate that younger people today are more anti-gun than younger people around the time of Columbine. In the General Social Survey around the time of Columbine (aggregated from 1998-2000), 13% of all adults under the age of 30 said they owned a gun. That’s the same as today. The lack of movement fits with the steadiness of Americans overall in the percentage who own guns.