This article is part of our America’s Issues series.
Devastating mass shootings, one after another. Gun reform legislation for the first time in decades. Violent crime up since 2019. Debates over whether to fund or defund police. For the better part of two years now, crime and gun violence have consistently been in the news and on the minds of Americans, which is why we’re taking a closer look at the topic in the fourth installment of our FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey.
As a single combined issue, “crime or gun violence” has consistently ranked as a top concern in our survey. We’ve asked the same 2,000 or so Americans since late April using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel about what they think are the country’s most important issues, and in our latest wave, 33 percent of the 1,538 adults who responded named crime or gun violence as a top issue facing the country, making it the second-most important topic of the 20 we asked about.1
Only “inflation or increasing costs” has surpassed crime or gun violence in our poll, undoubtedly because the country is dealing with the highest inflation since the early 1980s. But even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school, Americans ranked crime or gun violence as the third-most important issue facing the country.
That said, not everyone in our survey is prioritizing the issue in the same way. Democrats are more likely to cite it as a problem than either independents2 or Republicans. In the latest wave of our survey, 44 percent of Democrats named it as a top issue for the country, compared with 31 percent of independents and 26 percent of Republicans. Moreover, Democrats have ranked it either first or second in every wave of our poll, while independents have placed it consistently in their top three issues and Republicans in their top six.
Part of what we’re seeing here is that different people fixate on different aspects of crime or gun violence. “Looting, stealing, trying to hack computers, always looking to take from others,” said a 77-year old man from New York who identified as a Republican and homed in on acts of thievery. Meanwhile, a 37-year old woman from Minnesota who identified as a Democrat focused more on gun violence. “I’m much more afraid of the mass shooting epidemic in this country than of any random acts of crime,” she said.
It’s why we tried to dig deeper in this survey to better understand how people think about crime and gun violence. Do they think about them separately, for instance? To help answer this, we asked respondents to rank a list of 12 words or phrases by how much they associated each with either “crime” or “gun violence.” And as the chart below shows, we found people tended to associate “shooting” and “murder” strongly with gun violence, whereas there wasn’t as clear a pattern for which words they associated most with crime. Forty to 70 percent ranked “shooting,” “murder” and “firearm” in the top three words associated with gun violence, while 35 percent to 48 percent put “robbery,” “murder,” “burglary,” “shooting” and “assault” among their top three for crime. Some Americans also associated gun violence more with mental well-being, as 18 percent placed “mental health” in their top-three phrases for gun violence.3
In addition to asking respondents which words or phrases they associated with crime or gun violence, we also asked which of the two they thought was a bigger issue facing the country.4 Among those who named crime or gun violence as a top issue, 77 percent picked gun violence as the “bigger issue,” compared with only 21 percent who chose crime. This was also true among all respondents, although the gap was less lopsided: Fifty-five percent chose gun violence, and 34 percent named crime.
However, despite the greater concern over gun violence, independents were pretty split on how they viewed the issue, siding more with Democrats on the importance of gun violence as a major issue and more with Republicans on the question of how best to address crime.
And 56 percent of independents said gun violence was the bigger issue, compared with 29 percent who said crime. “Just look at the rest of the world mocking ‘Americans and their guns.’ We’re killing ourselves. I don't want to fear everyday places: school, grocery, church, the mall, a parade,” said a 46-year old woman from California who identified as an independent who leaned Republican. Similarly, when asked whether they preferred gun laws that were more strict, less strict or upheld the status quo, 60 percent of independents said they supported more restrictions, which was about halfway between where Democrats (87 percent) and Republicans (35 percent) stood on this question (61 percent overall preferred stricter regulations).
That said, a majority of independents sided with Republicans on the question of how to best spend resources to address crime. Fifty-five percent of independents said increasing police funding would reduce crime, while 38 percent favored redirecting some police spending to social services instead. This majority view among independents was still less pronounced than among Republicans, 83 percent of whom supported increasing police spending, while only a minority of Democrats (36 percent) thought increasing police spending would reduce crime.
Overall, though, crime or gun violence was an issue that Americans had seen a lot of in the news. Sixty-seven percent said they’d seen “a lot” of coverage in the past month, which was bested by only inflation (68 percent).5 Eddie Ellison, a Black man from Georgia who identified as an independent, told us, “Everywhere, every time you turn the news on, all you see is gun violence, murders and robberies and stuff like this.”
It’s perhaps one reason why Americans’ understanding of crime and gun violence was pretty accurate. For instance, we found that 60 percent knew that the U.S. has the highest number of gun deaths per capita among all developed countries. The same percentage correctly identified that the number of active shooter incidents has changed over the last 20 years (it’s increased). Additionally, 51 percent correctly said that violent crime, such as murder and rape, increased in 2020, the last year for which we have data, while only 9 percent incorrectly said it hadn’t (38 percent said they didn’t know).
That said, Americans also overstated the rate of violent crime and property crime compared to the past, probably in part because we tend to forget about things that haven’t happened recently. Indeed, 49 percent said the rate of violent crime was higher in 2020 than in 1991 — it wasn’t — while 41 percent said the rate of crimes like burglary and car theft hadn’t been declining since 2010, when, in fact, it has. These weren’t meant to be “gotcha” questions, mind you. Instead, we wanted to get a sense of how levels of concern compared to the actual data on crime and gun violence.
On the subject of policy ideas Americans would like to see implemented to potentially reduce gun violence, there was a lot of agreement, however. At least 74 percent backed a host of different requirements, such as safety training before purchasing a gun, universal background checks for all gun sales, a mandatory mental health evaluation before a gun sale and raising the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21.6
This was an area of relative bipartisan agreement, too, as majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents supported each of these proposals. “They need to have a better screening process as to who’s able to purchase a gun,” said Stephanie Brown, a Black woman from Virginia who identified as a Democrat. The least popular measure was requiring gun purchasers to prove they would properly store weapons, but 68 percent still backed that proposal, including 53 percent of Republicans. Amalia Williams, a Hispanic woman from Arizona who identified as a Republican, told us the process for buying a gun should be similar to the immigration process in the U.S., where people’s backgrounds are vetted. “They should do something like that with American citizens so that it takes months to get a gun,” she said.
Yet Americans didn’t necessarily think implementing these policies would be a panacea, or that people shouldn’t be able to own guns. Only a 41 percent plurality thought greater restrictions on gun ownership would reduce mass shootings, while 35 percent disagreed (22 percent said they didn’t know). Meanwhile, half of all respondents agreed that guns were necessary to defend themselves and their property, and 47 percent said all Americans should have the right to own a gun, compared with just 39 percent who disagreed.
Concerns around gun violence could be politically beneficial for Democrats, who along with independents are more likely to name it as a bigger concern than crime. After all, Democrats and independents (and even some Republicans) tend to back certain restrictions on gun purchases, and 3 in 5 Americans broadly said they’d prefer stricter gun laws. However, Republicans led Democrats on the generic ballot in our poll, which asks voters which party they’d back in the race for Congress, 40 percent to 38 percent among likely voters. This marked a very slight shift — within the margin of error — back in the GOP’s direction after Democrats took a 1-point lead a month ago. We’ve seen Democrats continue to gain in FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot tracker, so this could be a blip, but it’s a reminder that with the larger concerns about the economy — especially inflation — it’s hard to imagine issues like gun violence and crime completely ameliorating the presidential party’s midterm penalty.
Additional reporting by Zoha Qamar. Art direction by Dan Dao. Copy editing by Santul Nerkar. Story editing by Sarah Frostenson.
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