01/14/2013 12:53 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Is American 'Acceptance of Violence' on the Rise?

One month ago today, the Newtown school shooting deeply unsettled a society that sometimes seems inured to its high levels of gun violence. Certainly to a great extent, the horror of Newtown derives from the age of most of the victims (28 in all, 20 of whom were children aged 6 or 7). But the fact that this shooting is only the most recent in a string of similar events (including Seattle, Aurora, and Portland in 2012) has also deepened the impression it has made on many Americans.

The FBI classifies mass killings as multi-victim shootings where victims are chosen indiscriminately. George Zornick at The Nation reports that 84 Americans were killed in such shootings in 2012. After Newtown, there seems to be a broadening sense that these episodes are not so much terrible freak events as they are a persistent feature of our national life. And to many, it seems no coincidence that the deadliest recent shootings -- Aurora (12 fatalities) and Newtown (26 fatalities) -- were committed by directionless young men.

Much of the discussion in the wake of the Newtown shootings has understandably revolved around gun violence and gun control, and whether recent killings present an opportunity to reform our gun laws. It is instructive, however, for public opinion to look beyond the instruments of violence themselves and consider Americans' attitudes toward violence in general. In particular, it is worth looking at the attitudes of young people, who stand out starkly from other segments of society in this area.

In national surveys conducted every presidential election year between 1992 and 2012, Environics has been monitoring the evolution of a value called "Acceptance of Violence" (among many others). We have measured the incidence of this value by asking four questions, each designed to gauge a different facet of respondents' views on violence. For instance, we enquire whether violence is an acceptable means of catharsis -- a way to blow off steam. Does violence have instrumental value: is it a valid way to get what you want? And so on. On all four questions by which we measure Americans' acceptance of violence, scores climbed to surprisingly high levels during the 1990s and into the first few years of the new century. But a finding that some find equally surprising is that the same scores have been declining for nearly a decade, with Americans becoming less accepting of violence as a feature of social life. Nevertheless, there remains a significant segment of the population (in which youth are heavily overrepresented) that sees violence as acceptable, normal, and even exciting.

In 1992, 15 percent of Americans agreed that "When a person can't take it anymore and feels like he/she is about to explode, a little violent behavior can relieve the tension. It's no big deal." Agreement with this statement roughly doubled over the ensuing decade, peaking at 32 percent in 2004. Particularly alarming was the rate of agreement among young people: half (52 percent) of those aged 15 to 24 affirmed the cathartic value of violence, seeing it as a valid way to relieve tension -- "no big deal." The other questions we use to measure Acceptance of Violence have followed broadly similar patterns, increasing from lows in the early 90s to peaks in the 2000/2004 period, and sliding back downward over the past decade or so.

These questions vary in their strength and explicitness. Although "a little violent behavior" might be read as a victimless activity (smashing a plate or kicking a hole in the drywall), another statement we measure is more forceful: "It is acceptable to use physical force to get what you really want. The important thing is getting what you want." In 2012, 12 percent of Americans agreed. Among the 15 to 24 age cohort, the proportion was one in four (26 percent).

The gender gap on Acceptance of Violence is also significant in every wave of surveys, and remains strong to this day. For instance, in 2012, men (18 percent) were roughly twice as likely as women (7 percent) to agree with the normalizing statement that "Violence is part of life. It's no big deal." But it is young people who are, by far, the most apathetic members of society when it comes to their attitudes about violence. Fifteen to 24 year olds were more than twice as likely (45 percent) as the national average (20 percent) to agree that "Violence can sometimes be exciting."

Do these attitudes among American youth mean our society is moving in a more violent direction? No. Youth values can be an important sign of things to come, but they can also register life-stage characteristics that tend to soften as people age, such as risk-taking, thrill-seeking, burgeoning sexuality, and a lust for immediate gratification. In fact, although young people continue to stand out from their older compatriots in their acceptance of violence, analysis of youth values over time shows that young people have been trending with the rest of society -- becoming less accepting over the past decade. In other words, an 18 year old male today, although more accepting of violence than a 50 year old today, is likely less accepting of violence than an 18 year old male in 2000 would be. It is also worth noting that although some mass shootings, such as those at Columbine and Newtown, have been perpetrated by very young men, most shooters are men in their 30s and 40s.

Just as it is heartening to know that violent crime is in long-term decline in most parts of the country (despite sensational and nightmarish mass shootings), it is a hopeful sign that Americans' Acceptance of Violence has, after a period of growth, been declining again over the past decade. Still, a mindset that sees violence as a normal part of life is surprisingly prevalent in our society -- especially among the young and among men. And even if only a small proportion of those who believe violence is acceptable act on that belief, the availability of firearms -- especially semi-automatic weapons -- empowers that tiny minority in ways that are by now too familiar to all of us.

Our research does suggest an opening for those who seek a society in which the tools of extreme violence are less widely available. The decade-long decline in the value of Acceptance of Violence we have described suggests that the opportunity for change will not disappear as the news from Newtown recedes from the headlines. At the same time, the fact that so many young people view violence as a normal part of life suggests two things. First, that Americans would be foolish to lose any opportunity to limit the possible consequences of those attitudes. Second, that it is worth reflecting on the ingredients of a cultural climate that has in the past decade caused half of our youth to shrug that violence off as "no big deal."