Despite outrage over a cycle of deadly mass shootings in California and other states, a new poll out Monday has found plummeting support for a national assault weapon ban, reflecting what even backers say may be growing pessimism over whether such a law would reduce violence.
President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom have called for a ban, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a new ban bill last month, similar to one Congress allowed to expire after 10 years in 2004. California has banned the sale of assault weapons since 1989, but it is under legal challenge.
“While Biden has undertaken a new push to ban assault weapons, public views on the issue are now closely divided,” said Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates, which produced the survey for ABC News. Asked their opinion regarding the proposed legislation, 51% of respondents said they were opposed and 47% were in support.
Langer Research has asked about an assault weapon ban 22 times in 13 years starting in 1995, and noted that in most other polls, majorities have supported such a measure, peaking at 79% in May 1999. Support was at 62% as recently as April 2018 but fell to 56%, with 41% opposed, in September 2019, the last time the firm asked.
Langer said the decline in support since 2019 is broadly based across groups, but that it “would take a study focused in more detail on the issue to assess its reasons.” Monday’s poll covered a variety of topics including the national debt and the popularity of the nation’s elected leaders.
Langer said the findings don’t appear to be an outlier — a Quinnipiac University poll in July 2022 found 49% in support of a national assault weapon sale ban and 45% opposed, though Feinstein’s office noted a Jan. 27-29 Morning Consult/Politico poll that found 65% support banning assault weapons and 67% support banning large-capacity ammunition magazines.
But Langer did say that other polls suggest reasons for flagging support. The Quinnipiac University poll also found 52% of Americans do not worry about being the victim of a mass shooting, while 47% percent do.
A Pew Research Center poll last year also found the public divided on whether making it harder to get guns would reduce mass shootings, Langer said. Another Pew study among parents of children under 18 found just 45% of the parents thought an assault weapons ban would be extremely or very effective at preventing shootings in schools.
Asked about the findings, Ruth Borenstein, legislative and policy chair for Brady California, which supports the national ban, said “it’s hard to know, but I suspect it’s due to efforts to normalize these weapons of war.”
“We have members of Congress wearing assault weapon pins on their lapels,” Borenstein said. “Plus, tragically, now that mass shootings are a daily occurrence, I think many people see them as inevitable.”
Despite California’s longstanding ban on semiautomatic rifles and pistols styled after modern military guns, prohibition of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, and a host of other firearm restrictions, the state in January saw its deadliest month of mass shootings in at least a decade.
Seven workers were killed Jan. 23 at a pair of Half Moon Bay mushroom farms by an alleged disgruntled coworker armed with a pistol, and 11 people were fatally shot Jan. 21 at a dance studio in the Los Angeles County suburb of Monterey Park by man armed with an assault pistol believed to be illegal in the state. On Jan. 16, six people died in a gang-related shooting in the San Joaquin Valley town of Goshen, including a teenage mother and her infant son.
Gun-rights supporters say assault weapons are functionally the same as semiautomatic rifles and pistols that have been in civilian use for more than a century. They fire one shot per trigger pull until empty, unlike the rifles carried by soldiers that can fire continuously with one trigger pull until empty. Such fully automatic weapons have long been prohibited for civilian use in the United States.
“AR-15s are the most popular rifle in America and millions use them daily for a variety of lawful purposes,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement Monday. “Support for a ban on these widely owned firearms has declined because Americans know bans do nothing to reduce violent crime or enhance public safety. Common sense tells them that bans only affect the law-abiding.”
Congress allowed Feinstein’s 1994 assault weapon ban to expire in 2004. One study said its “success in reducing criminal use of the banned guns and magazines has been mixed.” That report found that following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined by 17% to 72% in areas studied. But it said the decline in assault weapon use was offset by the use of other guns with large-capacity magazines that had been grandfathered before the law took effect.
The report concluded that it was premature to assess the ban’s impact on gun crime because it “may not be fully felt for several years into the future.”
Feinstein’s office said Monday “it remains clear that the majority of Americans want Congress to act to end gun violence,” and pointed to studies showing a drop in gun massacre deaths when the assault weapon ban was in effect, and an increase afterward.
“We know the assault weapons ban worked, it saved lives,” Feinstein’s office said. “It’s time to renew the ban.”
The ABC poll of a random national sample of 1,003 adults — 26% Democrats, 25% Republicans and 40% independents — was conducted by landline and cell phone Jan. 27-Feb. 1 in English and Spanish. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.