WASHINGTON -- If recent history is a guide, the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., on Friday is unlikely to move poll results about guns rights and gun control in any lasting way.
Thirteen years ago, another shooting rampage at Columbine High School, not far from Aurora, produced a brief bump in support for stricter gun laws, but that new support had eroded a year later and ultimately gave way to a longer-term decline.
The Columbine shootings attracted by far the most public interest of any news story in 1999, according to the Pew Research Center. That April week, more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) said they had followed the story very closely.
The tragedy helped provoke a national debate over gun control laws, which in turn produced a flurry of polls checking Americans' opinions on the wisdom of such laws. A few weeks after the shootings, Pew Research found 65 percent of Americans said it was more important to control gun ownership, while only 30 percent said it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. That was a eight-point jump in those favoring gun control laws (up from 57 percent) since the pollster had last asked the question in December 1993.
The post-Columbine bump had faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, support for stricter gun laws dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placing greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).
Similar questions tracked by Gallup and the Washington Post and ABC News showed similar patterns. Just after the Columbine shootings, Gallup found 66 percent of Americans saying that laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, but by October 2010 the pollster found support for stricter laws had fallen to just 44 percent. Likewise, the Post/ABC poll showed a longterm decline in support for stricter guns laws, dropping from 67 percent in May 1999 to 52 percent in January 2012.
The Pew Research surveys show that the increase in support for gun rights since 2007 has occurred mostly among independents and Republicans, creating very wide partisan differences. In Pew's most recent survey, 72 percent of Republicans say it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners, compared to just 27 percent of Democrats.
Partisanship does not entirely explain the trend, however. The Pew surveys found that although white Americans are far more likely than non-whites to back gun rights, African Americans' support has increased by 18 points (from 17 to 35 percent) since 2007.
As always, these general views on stricter gun laws versus stronger gun rights can translate into very different attitudes when pollsters ask about specific proposals.
For example, a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in January 2011, immediately after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Ariz., found that 65 percent of Americans opposed a ban on the sale of all handguns. Yet on the same survey, nearly as many supported a nationwide ban on "assault weapons" (63 percent) and a nationwide ban on "high-capacity magazines" (63 percent).
The latest tragedy in Colorado may well produce another brief polling bump, but it is unlikely to shift in attitudes over the long term absent a more fundamental change in the gun policy debate.
1981: The Attempted Assassination Of President Ronald Reagan
on March 30, 1981, President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot in the head.
1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Act
The Brady Handgun Violence Act of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, mandated that federally licensed dealers complete comprehensive background checks on individuals before selling them a gun. The legislation was named for James Brady, who was shot during an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
1994: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, instituted a ban on 19 kinds of assault weapons, including Uzis and AK-47s. The crime bill also banned the possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. (An exemption was made for weapons and magazines manufactured prior to the ban.)
2004: Law Banning Magazines Holding More Than Ten Rounds Of Ammunition Expires
In 2004, ten years after it first became law, Congress allowed a provision banning possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition to expire through a sunset provision. Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke told HuffPost that the expiration of this provision meant that Rep. Gabby Giffords's alleged shooter was able to fire off 20-plus shots without reloading (under the former law he would have had only ten).
2007: The U.S. Court of Appeals For The District Of Columbia Rules In Favor Of Dick Heller
In 2007 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled to allow Dick Heller, a licensed District police officer, to keep a handgun in his home in Washington, D.C. Following that ruling, the defendants petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
2008: The NICS Improvement Amendments Act
Following the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech University, Congress passed legislation to require states provide data on mentally unsound individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, with the aim of halting gun purchases by the mentally ill, and others prohibited from possessing firearms. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of 2008.
2008: Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban As Unconstitutional
In June of 2008, the United States Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a lower court ruling the D.C. handgun ban unconstitutional in the landmark case <em>District of Columbia v. Heller</em>.
Gabrielle Giffords And Trayvon Martin Shootings
Gun control advocates had high hopes that reform efforts would have increased momentum in the wake of two tragic events that rocked the nation. In January of 2011, Jared Loughner opened fire at an event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), killing six and injuring 13, including the congresswoman. Resulting attempts to push gun control legislation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">proved fruitless</a>, with neither proposal even succeeding in gaining a single GOP co-sponsor. More than a year after that shooting, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/trayvon-martin" target="_hplink">gunned down</a> by George Zimmerman in an event that some believed would bring increased scrutiny on the nation's Stand Your Ground laws. While there has been increasing discussion over the nature of those statutes, lawmakers were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">quick to concede</a> that they had little faith the event would effectively spur gun control legislation, thanks largely to the National Rifle Association's vast lobbying power. Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">here</a>:
Colorado Movie Theater Shooting
In July of 2012, a heavily armed gunman <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/aurora-shooting-movie-theater-batman_n_1688547.html" target="_hplink">opened fire on theatergoers</a> attending a midnight premiere of the final film of the latest Batman trilogy, killing 12 and wounding scores more. The suspect, James Eagan Holmes, allegedly carried out the act with a number of handguns, as well as an AR-15 assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine. Some lawmakers used the incident, which took place in a state with some of the laxest gun control laws, to bring forth legislation designed to place increased regulations on access to such weapons, but many observers, citing previous experience, were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/batman-shooting_n_1690547.html" target="_hplink">hesitant to say</a> that they would be able to overcome the power of the National Rifle Association and Washington gun lobby.