Prioritizing Gun Violence Reduction Measures

Only four percent of Americans say that gun violence or gun issues constitute the most important problem facing the country today, based on our April 4-7 monthly update of the "most important problem" measure. This puts guns in the same four percent category as immigration issues, education, and the situation with North Korea.

This also puts guns -- on this measure -- well below a number of other economic and governmental issues (we'll have a full discussion of these results on Monday at

Trend wise, the mention of gun issues is about where it has been since December, when it jumped to four percent from virtually no mentions in November. This increase was, no doubt, a direct result of the impact of the Newtown, Conn. elementary school shootings. The mention of guns as the most important problem has stayed at about this level since December -- at four percent in January, six percent in February, and four percent in March and April.

Does the very low level of mentions of gun violence as the nation's top problem mean that Americans don't want Congress to pass gun legislation? No, I don't think this is the case. This type of top-of-mind question is, by its nature, exclusionary. We actually allow respondents to name more than one issue, and many do. But by its nature, this question focuses the respondents in on "the" most important problem. And just because few Americans volunteer that guns are the most important problem off the top of their heads doesn't mean that this isn't considered to be an important priority when measured in different ways.

However, a Pew Research poll conducted Jan. 9-13 of this year asked Americans to rate 21 issues in terms of being top priorities for the president and Congress. The results showed a range from 86% who said that strengthening the economy was a top priority to 28 percent who said that dealing with global warming was a top priority.

"Strengthening gun laws" came in fourth from the bottom, with 37 percent saying that it was a top priority.

In short, both an open-ended question asking about the nation's top problems and a closed list of questions asking Americans to rate issues as priorities show the same thing. Gun issues have a relatively low priority.

A January Gallup survey approached this topic in a somewhat different way and found that 51 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws, while 43 percent were satisfied. This 51 percent dissatisfaction rating put gun laws at about the middle of the list of those issues measured. Other elements of American life where more than half were dissatisfied included the nation's policies on crime, the quality of public education, healthcare, immigration, the amount Americans pay in taxes, the nation's efforts to deal with poverty, and in particular the state of the nation's economy (79 percent dissatisfied).

So gun laws were not high on the list of concerns using this measure either, although the finding that slightly more than half were dissatisfied indicates some level of concern. (But a follow-up question asked of those who were dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws showed that not all of this dissatisfaction was because the laws should be made stronger; some thought the laws should be made less strong, while others didn't know or couldn't say.)

This is not to say that Americans are not in favor of stronger gun violence control measures. As my colleague Lydia Saad summarized in her review of the gun violence control measures proposed by President Obama a couple of months ago:

"Given the chance to vote 'for' or 'against' each of nine key proposals included in President Barack Obama's plan to reduce gun violence, Americans back all nine. Americans are most likely to be in favor of requiring background checks for all gun sales (91 percent), increasing funding for mental health programs aimed at youth (82 percent), increasing funding for programs to train law enforcement and schools in responding to active armed attacks (79 percent), and increasing criminal penalties for people who buy guns for others -- so-called straw purchasers (75 percent)."

So Americans favor laws that would be aimed at controlling gun violence, but the data don't suggest that passing such laws is their highest priority at this point in time.

None of this speaks to the issue of intense focus on this issue among niche groups of Americans. That issue is of course of significant concern to Representatives and Senators seeking re-election. Smaller groups of gun activists -- on either side of the issue -- can make a difference in close elections. So elected officials in Washington face a situation in which they recognize that the average American favors passing gun violence control measures (particularly measures like background checks), but one in which the average American does not consider these measures to be of the highest priority. But, a situation in which the officials may well recognize that smaller groups of constituents in his or her district or state may care very deeply about gun measures, making their decisions on how to handle pending gun legislation complicated indeed.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.