Uvalde Prepares To Mark Anniversary Of Last Year's School Shooting

Concern about gun violence in American schools is on the rise, new poll shows

Four in 10 Americans think schools in their communities are not safe from gun violence, according to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. As the United States marks one year since the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, when 19 children and two teachers were killed, support for controlling gun violence has hit its highest level in a decade of Marist data.

Most U.S. adults feel their local schools are safe from gun violence. But from Newport News to Denver to Nashville, the number of communities affected by shootings grows, as well as a sense of unease: Concern about gun violence in schools has risen 10-percentage points since February 2019, a year after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. People in the South, where gun laws tend to be less restrictive, were more likely in this poll to feel their local schools were vulnerable to gun violence than those in the Northeast and Midwest.

communities safe from gun violence- bar chart SITE-2

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Overall, four in 10 Americans say they or someone they know has experienced gun violence, but that grows to five in 10 when you ask parents with children under age 18. Between 2019 and 2021, gun deaths among children rose by 50 percent, according to Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since then, the United States became the only developed nation in the world where gun violence was ranked the top cause of death among children and teens, outpacing motor vehicle accidents.

“There’s a real increase [in violence] and danger for young people,” said Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist who leads the RAND Corporation’s Gun Policy in America initiative.

So far in 2023, there have been roughly 650 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, nearly eclipsing the 690 mass shootings throughout the entire previous year.

Rebekah Doody, 19, said she “can’t remember a grade when I didn’t have lockdown drills.” Now a rising sophomore at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Doody knows the drills are important, but “the worst part about it was it was so normal.”

With a mother and two sisters who are school teachers, “It’s very hard to worry about my family every day,” she said. As complicated and controversial as the debate can be over what to do about gun violence, Doody thinks it’s a no-brainer: “Protect people’s lives instead of people’s objects,” she said.

READ MORE: Uvalde families plead for stricter gun laws nearly a year after mass shooting

Six in 10 Americans seem to agree, saying it is more important to control gun violence than it is to protect gun rights. That is up 11-percentage points since March 2013, months after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. A majority of nearly every group of Americans feels this way, though this attitude was especially strong among Democrats, Biden supporters, college graduates and people who live in big cities.

control gun violence- line chart SITE

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Meanwhile, roughly four in 10 Americans think protecting gun rights is a higher priority than controlling gun violence. Rev. Evan McClanahan, a Lutheran pastor in Houston, is one of them. When he thinks about mass shootings like the one in Uvalde that took place roughly 300 miles away from him, McClanahan said that beyond feeling horror, sadness and anger, he wanted to know “what exact law should have been passed to prevent” it from happening. He views gun ownership as “a deterrent for criminals” and that “someone who takes a life is not concerned about following the law.”

The attitude that gun rights should take priority was particularly true among Republicans, Trump voters and white evangelical Christians.

A handful of recent, high-profile shootings occurred when someone rang the wrong doorbell, pulled into the wrong driveway or got into the wrong car before someone shot at them. This poll found 40 percent of Americans disapprove of so-called “stand your ground” laws, that permit a person to kill someone they feel is threatening their safety in a public place.

stand your ground- bar chart by age SITE-2

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

A majority of U.S. adults — 58 percent – support these laws, a number that has slightly increased since March 2012, shortly after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Younger generations who have now endured decades of shootings at schools and in other public spaces were the most likely to support such laws. People who experienced gun violence (or knew someone who had) were also slightly more likely than the general population to support more guns as a preventative measure.

Looking for solutions

After hearing about a mass shooting in the U.S., the first reaction among 62 percent of Americans is that the nation needs stricter gun laws, according to the poll. That includes a majority of independents. At the same time, 35 percent of Americans thought more people should carry guns, an increase of 10-percentage points since February 2019.

top gun control policies- bar chart SITE-2

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

So which kind of gun law do Americans see as the most effective? While none of the options considered by respondents to the poll drew support from a majority of Americans, banning the sale of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47 or the AR-15, was the most popular choice, with support from about a quarter of U.S. adults. Those types of guns have become common weapons used in mass shootings, and their bans are most popular among people who know someone who has experienced gun violence, parents with children under age 18, residents of states with stricter gun laws and Democrats.

WATCH: A look at the rise of the AR-15 in America after 8 killed at Texas outlet mall

But existing regulations on specific types of weapons are riddled with loopholes, making it “very hard to prove effectiveness,” said Cassandra Crifasi, who helps direct the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University. She said that red flag laws – where a judge can have a firearm temporarily removed from a person’s possession if they appear to pose a risk to themselves or others – have shown early evidence of promise in states that have passed them, but only 12 percent of Americans think those laws would play an effective role in reducing gun violence.

There is “moderate evidence” background checks for private gun sales can decrease firearm homicides, Morral said, but only 13 percent of Americans viewed these checks as the best way of ensuring fewer people are injured or killed through gun violence.

One in five Americans thought none of the most high-profile policies being debated to curb gun violence will have any effect – an opinion particularly popular among Republicans.

“I don’t think there’s an incontrovertible case for any of these laws, but I think there’s growing evidence for a few of them that they probably are associated with some reductions in gun violence,” Morral said. While sharp divisions inevitably arise over how to address gun violence, Crifasi said, hope is not lost. “The evidence base is growing and should help to clarify these disagreements about factual matters — mainly what policies do what.”

The PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey between May 15 and May 18 that polled 1,268 U.S. adults with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points and 1,166 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.