The FINANCIAL -- The fewest Americans in 20 years favor making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles. Thirty-six percent now want an assault weapons ban, down from 44% in 2012 and 57% when Gallup first asked the question in 1996.
Assault rifles have been a contentious issue in American life for decades. Two years after President Bill Clinton signed a federal assault weapons ban in 1994, Gallup found that a solid majority of Americans favored such a ban. By the time the 10-year ban expired in 2004, Americans were evenly divided. And by 2011, public opinion had tilted against the assault weapons ban, with 53% opposed and 43% in favor. In Gallup's 2016 Crime poll, conducted Oct. 5-9, opposition now exceeds support by 25 percentage points, 61% to 36%.
Perhaps paradoxically, opposition toward a ban has increased against a backdrop of multiple mass shootings and terrorist attacks in which the perpetrators used assault rifles. These guns were used in high-profile incidents, including the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, and the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, according to Gallup.
Support for Ban Wanes Among Democrats, Republicans
In the past 20 years, support for an assault weapons ban has fallen among all partisan groups, but more so among Republicans than Democrats. Currently, 50% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans favor a ban; in 1996, 63% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans did so. The partisan gap in support has doubled, from 13 points in 1996 to 25 points today.
Independents also have grown less inclined to back an assault weapons ban, dropping from a peak of 63% in favor of a ban in 2000 to 31% in the latest poll. From 2004 to 2011, support among independents plunged from 51% to 42%, echoing the nine-point drop among Republicans during that period.
Both Gun and Non-Gun Households Retreat in Ban Support
Support for a ban has declined among both those with and those without a gun in the home. In 2004, 55% of those in non-gun households supported a ban; this year, 45% do. Likewise, while those with a gun in the home have never favored a ban on assault weapons, support is now at an all-time low of 26%.
Americans living in households with guns have consistently been less likely than those in non-gun households to favor a ban. The percentage of those with a gun in the home who favor an assault weapons ban has declined steadily since 2004.
Americans Less Likely to Favor Tougher Gun Laws in General
The decline in support for an assault weapons ban mirrors the trend for those saying there should be a law banning the possession of handguns, except by the police or other authorized people. Currently, 23% of Americans favor such a ban, down from 26% in 2011 and 36% in 2004.
At the same time, 55% of Americans say laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, with 10% saying the laws should be less strict and 34% saying they should be kept as they are now. The percentage favoring stricter gun laws has fluctuated between 43% and 60% since 2004, with no clear increase or decrease in support. But it is down from levels consistently at or above 60% in the 1990s, including a high of 78% in 1990.
In an era of ongoing terrorist attacks and mass shootings in the U.S., Americans are now more likely to oppose an assault weapons ban than they have been in two decades. One reason may be the large increase in opposition to such a ban among Republicans. Whereas 20 years ago half of Republicans were open to such legislation, now only one in four are. But politics alone do not explain the declining support, since it has dropped among independents and Democrats as well, although on a smaller scale.
It is possible this represents a backlash against calls by some in the national media and the federal government to ban certain weapons after mass shootings occur. This backlash may reflect growing apprehension that the government may infringe upon particular civil and personal liberties. Gallup finds even lower levels of support for other potential bans, such as those on handguns and cigarettes.
It is striking -- and unusual -- that fewer Democrats than ever support an assault weapons ban, since the Democratic Party has been instrumental in pushing for stricter gun laws.
However, it is worth noting that a majority of Americans still believe there should be stricter laws governing the sale of firearms, even as they are reluctant to endorse a ban on handguns and assault weapons. In general, a majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws, furthering the complexity of this issue.