Poll: Gen Z Spurs Shift in Voter Support for Gun Control

Poll: Gen Z Spurs Shift in Voter Support for Gun Control
AP Photo/John Raoux, File
Poll: Gen Z Spurs Shift in Voter Support for Gun Control
AP Photo/John Raoux, File
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A recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that a record high number of voters believe the United States needs stricter gun control laws, but the majority nonetheless concludes these stricter laws would not stop mass shootings like the ones in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Breaking the previous high of 57% in June 2016, 64% of voters said the nation needs stricter gun control laws. Regardless of this support, less than one-quarter of voters believe it’s possible to completely prevent mass shootings.

Gen Z (encompassing those born between 1995 and 2015) may be responsible for these new polling peaks. While millennials (born between 1980-1994) have pondered curbing gun violence, they failed to spark a national change in attitude. As more Gen Zers enter early adulthood, they’re challenging their parents and policymakers to reconsider the scope of the Second Amendment. Regina Luttrell, professor of public relations and social media at Syracuse University, told RealClearPolitics that she considers Gen Z the “superhero” generation: They want to right the wrongs they see in the world.

“The superhero generation is trying to make their mark and gain recognition for being the generation that’s willing to once again assemble, march, speak, and defy, in ways that previous generations rarely did,” she said.

While it’s too soon to tell if the attitudes brought into the public square by Gen Z will prompt legislative change at the national level, their attitudes seem to be influencing their elders to think more critically about gun violence. Although the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton that left 31 people dead were highly politicized, what isn’t known is whether the changing poll numbers reflect a lasting shift, or are just temporary reactions of anger and frustration.

Colleen Barry, chairman of the health policy and management department at John Hopkins University, cautions that the increased support for stricter gun control laws may be a result of polling so soon after mass shootings. “What it’s capturing is the immediate response to mass shooting events, in terms of public attitude,” she told RCP. “What it’s not necessarily capturing is longer-term, enduring attitudes, and it’s not necessarily capturing what information people are using to form the basis of their voting attitudes.”

However, a Gallup poll taken before the latest mass shootings also recorded the highest level of support for stricter gun control laws in 25 years. In the Rasmussen findings, the Gen Z and millennial respondents registered the highest level of support for stricter laws at 68%. Those ages 40-64 weren’t far behind at 64%, and 55% of voters 65 years and older agreed with the younger generations.

A sharper contrast exists between the generations when asked if they believe stricter laws can prevent, or completely stop, mass shootings. Fifty-seven percent of Gen Zers and millennials assert that such laws can achieve that goal. But the number drops 10 percentage points for voters 40-64 and another nine points for those 65 years and older. Finally, one-third of the younger generations believe it’s possible to completely prevent mass shootings, while under one-fifth of voters 40-64 agree, and just over 10% of voters 65 and older believe such is possible.

While Gen Z appears to be spearheading the cause for gun violence prevention across the nation, support from millennials for similar laws was not always as strong. Timothy Bono, a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told RCP that polls taken between 2007 and 2016 showed millennials were more likely to support gun rights than Gen X and the baby boomers. He noted that millennials prioritize the rights of the individual and do not support government policies that infringe on such rights, with one exception.

“When those rights seem to then make it possible for people to abuse those rights, or open up the likelihood that people could then use that freedom in ways that harm others, there is a push and pull between individualism and protecting the … rights of an individual,” Bono said. In the case of the Second Amendment, millennials have witnessed a lack of regulation lead to “massive devastation in communities all around the country.”

In response, Luttrell added that Gen Z and younger millennials are calling for “regulation without infringement.” The younger generations want change and encourage older generations to reconsider their understanding of the Second Amendment. “[Gen Z and younger millennials] want bans on bump stocks, raising the minimum age for [purchasing] assault weapons, requiring more background checks during gun sales, and required training courses. And they’re looking to the government to make this happen,” she said. “They’re looking to their political officials to say: ‘These are things we stand for, and we’re going to vote the people in to make these changes for us.’”

Students’ reactions after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.,  demonstrated this determination. Bono pointed out that there was a call to action from the students themselves. Their voices were heard: Florida moved the legal age to purchase a handgun from 18 to 21. Gen Zers and younger millennials from across the country, Bono said, saw themselves in these students and became more likely to follow suit.

“It becomes something that is relevant to you personally. … If you’re standing on solid ground with another person, then they’re more likely to empathize with your point of view and to join your cause and contribute to it,” he said.

Barry predicted that gun regulation will play an important role in young voter turnout for the 2020 election. Her research, however, does not necessarily support the general assumption that millennials are more progressive than their predecessors.

“Anecdotally, that’s certainly the narrative,” she said. “It’s not clear to me that it plays out in nationally representative samples. … What I would guess is that there’s quite a bit of variability in attitudes that may, in some sense, resemble older generations’ [attitudes]  that depend in part on where you live and who you are.”

Taking into account this variability, some experiences shared by all millennials and Gen Zers cannot be ignored. The oldest millennials would have been young adults when the Columbine shootings took place in 1999, though the youngest members were still in preschool. As for the Gen Zers, many of them would have been infants at the time of that Colorado tragedy. These younger generations grew up in a world where they have been bombarded with information about mass shootings through social media. Their lives have been shaped by Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Charleston – and now, El Paso and Dayton.

Despite life experiences tainted by tragedy, Gen Z remains hopeful, the polling also shows. As more of this generation enters the electorate, it’s possible that they could see their goals realized. Lorenzo Prado, a Parkland survivor, embodied the overarching attitude of this superhero generation when he spoke in Tallahassee, the state capital, last year: “What we must do now is enact change because that is what we do to things that fail: We change them.”

The survey of 1,000 likely voters, conducted Aug. 6-7, had a margin of error of plus or minus percentage points.

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