Americans aged 18-34 most likely to oppose assault weapons ban, poll finds

Lois Beckett in New York
The previous national federal ban on assault weapons lapsed more than a decade ago, and Congress has not renewed it. Photograph: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

Resistance to a ban on military-style assault weapons is strongest among millennials, according to a new Quinnipiac poll released this week. It’s a finding that experts said might be driven by the popularity of first-person shooter video games such as Call of Duty and the increasing prominence of military-style guns in the consumer market.

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A large majority of Americans say they support a ban on the sale of assault weapons, a category of politically controversial guns that includes the AR-15-style rifles that have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

The previous national federal ban on assault weapons lapsed more than a decade ago, and Congress has not renewed it. Military-style rifles, which play a prominent role in America’s most horrific mass shootings, are used in only a tiny fraction of America’s overall gun murders. Consumers legally own millions of AR-15 style rifles, which gun enthusiasts modify and adapt with different accessories.

Opposition to an assault weapon ban was strongest among Republicans and among self-identified registered voters 18-34, the poll found. Unlike older Americans, millennials were closely divided on their support for an assault weapon ban, with 49% supporting and 44% opposing a ban.

There was huge support for a return to banning the sale of assault weapons from voters over 50, with 70% support from over-50s and 77% support from over-65s.

None of the other gun control questions in the Quinnipiac Poll had such a striking age divide, said David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who studies the culture of legal gun ownership in America.

“There does seem to be something in particular about assault weapons, and it could be due to the normality of assault weapons for people who have come of age playing first-person shooter games like Call of Duty,” he said.

He has seen this trend in his own son, who picked up terms like “tactical reload” from video games, rather than direct exposure to firearms.

For younger Americans, “these are guns that, as long as they’ve been part of the gun culture, have been very common and fairly typical guns, and that’s less true with somebody who was, say, born in 1930,” said Dave Kopel, a gun rights advocate and firearms law expert at the Independence Institute in Colorado.

People who grew up with the gun culture of the 1950s might be more accustomed to brown wooden hunting-rifles, while younger gun owners may be more used to the black polymer rifles that are often categorized as “assault weapons”, Kopel said.

Because different Americans may have radically different conceptions of what an assault weapon is, the results of the survey on whether they should be banned should be judged with some skepticism, Yamane cautioned.

The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry’s trade association, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The federal assault weapon ban, originally passed in 1994, targeted the manufacture, possession and sale of certain military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, but allowed Americans to keep the guns and ammunition they already owned, including at least 1.5 million guns classified as assault weapons.

Australia, in contrast, chose to buy back and melt down at least 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and other long guns in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

Because of the way assault weapons were defined by law, based on certain military-style features, American firearms manufacturers were able to tweak the design of their guns and continue to sell largely similar ban-compliant weapons. Some firearms experts believe the attempt to ban assault weapons, which are still prohibited under some state laws, only served to increase the popularity of the military-style guns among American consumers. Sales of AR-15-style rifles and other guns have spiked in the wake of mass shootings in recent years, as the threat of a renewed ban made some consumers fear this might be their last chance to buy.

The evaluation of the 1994 national assault weapon ban found no clear evidence that the ban reduced violence and concluded that a renewed ban would likely have, at best, a very small impact on reducing deaths and injuries. Limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines in particular, which were used in a far greater share of gun crimes than “assault weapons” themselves, might have a modest but nontrivial impact on reducing gunshot victimizations, the study found.


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