More than half of Texans polled wanted stricter gun laws before the Santa Fe school shooting happened

Candles are lit behind images of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School during a vigil in League City on May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Hey, Texplainer: What do Texans really think about gun control?

The national debate on gun control reignited Friday when a 17-year-old opened fire at a high school in Santa Fe High School, killing at least 10 people and leaving another 10 wounded.

In the aftermath, Republican leaders placed blame on a slew of factors: unarmed teachers, far too many doors to guard in schools and a lack of mental health services.

“We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a news conference Friday, adding that schools have far too many entrances and exits to safeguard. “We’re gonna have to be creative.”

Democrats, on the other hand, advocated for swift action on guns, including universal background checks and funding federal research on gun violence.

“What if we required universal background checks to ensure that firearms only get into the hands of those who won’t harm themselves or someone else,” Democrat Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman running against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz this fall, wrote in a Medium post. “Close all loopholes and exceptions. Every single gun purchase has a background check.”

Texas is as gun-friendly a state as they come. But how do voters feel about gun control, according to recent polls?

Like most issues, folks are divided.

The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, released in October, found that Texans are split on whether people carrying more guns will make for a safer environment. And as with many issues, the biggest divide was along party lines.

More than 60 percent of surveyed Republicans said they believed the country would be safer if more people carried guns. Only 5 percent of Democrats said they felt the same way.

“Republicans and Democrats tend to look at the same tragedy from very different perspectives,” Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist, said Monday. “Democrats look at Santa Fe and their most popular answer tends to be that gun control is the correct response to keep this from happening in the future. Whereas Republicans don’t see it that way. They don’t believe gun control would have any impact or is even germane.”

Texans are also split on who, or what, to blame for mass shootings. Of those surveyed, most (24 percent) said the primary cause is a failure of the mental health system, which was closely followed by current gun laws. Thirteen percent of respondents focused much of their ire on extreme views on the internet, while 10 percent blamed various forms of media (e.g., “media attention given to perpetrators of mass shootings”).

Increased access to mental health services seems to be one solution both Republicans and Democrats turn to in the wake of such tragedies. After Friday’s shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott touted a four-year-old project run by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center as a potential statewide model to reduce gun violence. The program works to identify junior high and high school students most at risk for committing violence in schools and intervene before it happens.

Another thing Texans seem to agree on? Overall, more than half of registered voters surveyed said gun control laws should be stricter. Only 13 percent of surveyed Texans said existing laws should be less strict than they are now, and 31 percent would prefer to leave current gun laws unchanged.

Democrats, are more likely to want to toughen current gun laws, while just about half of surveyed Republicans opt to leave them as they are now.

There’s also a racial divide: Black and Hispanic voters in Texas overwhelmingly said they preferred stricter gun control laws. Only 43 percent of white voters agreed.

That racial divide extends beyond Texas. A national survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of African-Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics found gun violence to be a “very big problem” in their local communities. Just 11 percent of white respondents said the same thing.

The results of the latest UT/TT poll showcases a slight shift on whom voters blamed for mass shootings just two year prior. In November 2015, the majority of surveyed Texans also blamed mental health issues and gun laws on mass shootings. Respondents also pointed to unstable families, however.

“In the wake of mass shootings, what you see in elected officials is often a reflection of what their own voters think,” Joshua Blank, the manager of polling and research of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Monday. “In the wake of these mass shootings, what you see is partisans talking mostly to their voters and, in turn, also reinforcing what voters already think about the causes of these problems.”

Forty-one percent of Texans surveyed in November 2015 said they believed gun laws should be stricter, compared to 18 percent who said they should be less strict. Overall, this is a small uptick from a February 2015 UT/TT Poll, where 36 percent of respondents said they wanted stricter gun control laws and 22 percent wanted those laws made less strict.

So what’s accounting for the trend of public opinion in Texas?

“The main driver in changing gun attitudes is the increasing frequency of mass shootings, both in Texas and elsewhere. With each one of these shootings, what you tend to see is a major uptick in attitudes in favor of greater gun restrictions,” Blank said. “With each additional tragedy, there tends to be more people who further embrace the possibility of more gun restrictions.”

The bottom line: Texans are split on whether more people carrying guns will make for a safer environment. But there’s an increasing number of people who think existing gun laws should be stricter. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Rice University and Texas Tech have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

 

by Ale Samuels, The Texas Tribune