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Monday, June 28, 2010

Supreme Court Gun Decision Handed Down in an Increasingly Pro Gun Rights Environment

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday decision on gun control came down on the side of a wider extension of protected gun rights.  I think it will certainly be greeted more favorably by the average American than it might have been 5, 10, or 15 years ago -- when gun control attitudes were quite different. We are at a point now when record-low numbers of Americans favor stricter gun laws.

No question that the Supreme Court's decision today is being widely interpreted as a victory for advocates of more lenient gun control laws. USA Today’s headline, for example, is “Supreme Court strikes another blow to local gun bans,” while The Washington Post says “Supreme Court rules that all Americans have fundamental right to bear arms.”

Gun control laws are one of several values issues on which the American public has been shifting more conservative in recent years (others include abortion and global warming). Here’s the latest trend graph on Gallup’s core gun control trend question:



As can be seen in this graph, the percentage of Americans favoring stricter gun laws has been drifting ever lower in recent years. As my colleague Jeff Jones noted last October, the current 44% of Americans saying that gun laws should be more strict ". . . is down 5 points in the last year and 34 points from the high of 78% recorded the first time the question was asked, in 1990."

It’s important to note that the country is still not in a position in which a majority want less strict gun laws (as Jeff said: “. . . 12% of Americans believe the laws should be less strict, which is low in an absolute sense but ties the highest Gallup has measured for this response".) But the fact that the percentage wanting gun laws "kept as they are now" and the percentage wanting gun laws made "more strict" are virtually equal signifies a major shift toward the conservative position on the gun control issue.

Monday’s decision deals with complex matters relating to interpretation of the Second Amendment’s applicability to state and local jurisdictions. A decision two years ago had ruled that the Second Amendment protected individuals’ rights to own guns. The current decision appears to clear the way for rulings that would apply that same decision to state and local jurisdictions.

Generally speaking, Americans would appear to agree on the Supreme Court's older decision on the Second Amendment issue. A Gallup survey in February 2008 found that 73% of Americans saying that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of Americans to own guns.

I have no idea how or if this might affect the just underway Senate confirmation hearings on Elena Kagan, Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Gun control has not been one of the major issues discussed so far in reference to Kagan’s legal background. Kagan was raised in New York City, and it is doubtful that her family were avid hunters or gun owners. Still, with today’s decision fresh on their minds, senators may decide its relevant to ask Kagan about her position on the issue. (It's worth noting that Gallup data have shown that a majority of Republicans say that Barack Obama will attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States while he is president.)

By the way, last year 40% of American adults said that there was a gun in their household.

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