Five Aspects of Texas Public Opinion on Mass Shootings, Guns, Gun Control, and the state’s rightward shift in the wake of the Uvalde Tragedy

In the aftermath of a tragedy as horrific as the one in Uvalde, Texas this week, many will wonder aloud whether Texas, and Texans, will have a reckoning with guns, its gun culture, and/or the recent laws that have made it increasingly easier to buy and own a gun in Texas?

While not attempting to ignore some of the important contextual considerations — namely, the likely (stale) political response from leaders in both parties; the degree to which one or both, but likely one, gubernatorial campaign decides to integrate or focus on the issue of gun violence in Texas; and the competition the issue will have to fight with for attention with the economy, immigration, and abortion to stay on the radar through November — below are five aspects of Texas public opinion on mass shootings, guns, and gun control that might condition how we think about the political response to such a horrific tragedy, and where Texas opinion goes from here.

1. We shouldn’t expect a huge shift in Texas public opinion on guns, broadly speaking. There are two reasons for this, first, evidence from the recent past indicates that a mass shooting, even a large one and/or particularly horrific one, on Texas soil is unlikely to change the underlying dynamics in how Texans feel about gun laws. Texas voters were asked in February 2019 and October 2019 whether or not Texas’ gun control laws should be made more strict, less strict, or left alone, with the massacre in El Paso occuring in August of that year. The results were strikingly consistent, 49% wanted the state’s laws made more strict in February, 51% in October. The share of the other two categories remained similarly stable, with 30% wanting them left alone in February, 28% in October; while 17% wanted them less strict in February, 13% in October. In short, the El Paso mass shooting did not shift Texans’ general opinions toward the strictness or leniency of Texas’ gun laws.

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More strict49%
Less strict17%
Left as they are now30%
Don't know/no opinion4%

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More strict51%
Less strict13%
Left as they are now28%
Don't know/No opinion8%

Second, partisan views of the causes of mass shootings, and of mass shootings in schools, differ significantly. This is important because policy solutions will only look like solutions to voters if they align with problems they are trying to solve as the voters see them. In Texas, where Republicans make up the majority of the voters and all of the statewide elected officials, few Republicans hold the belief that gun laws or easy access to guns are to blame for mass shootings. And because partisan views of the causes of mass shootings are different, and reinforced by elites in both parties, the most likely outcome is gridlock once discussion of any actual policy begins.

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Insufficient restrictions34%9%2%
Poor enforcement9%3%3%
Insufficient school security5%4%10%
Insufficient mental health resources17%12%12%
Poor parenting10%21%26%
Media attention5%5%8%
Drug use1%0%2%
Violence in popular culture3%12%10%
Failure to identify potential shooters5%9%12%
School building design1%2%2%

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Mental health system25%30%34%
Current gun laws28%9%2%
Drug use3%4%4%
Violence in popular culture7%6%9%
Internet extremism8%4%6%
Security at public buildings4%13%7%
Inflammatory politlca language2%1%3%
Unstable family situations9%14%16%
Media attention on perpetrators7%10%12%
Don't know/No opinion6%10%6%

2. However, Texans, like most Americans, continue to support universal background checks and some other restrictions. It may seem like there’s a disconnect here, and to some extent, there is. In nine surveys going back to 2015, in all but one instance (the first), a plurality or majority of Texas voters said they wanted gun laws in Texas made more strict. And maybe more surprisingly, a plurality or majority of Texas Republicans in all of those surveys said they wanted gun control laws in Texas left alone. Given this and broad support nationally for universal background checks, it should come as no surprise that 71% of Texans said they supported universal background checks on all gun purchases as recently as June of 2021, with only 21% in opposition. Among Republicans, 61% supported universal background checks, 38% strongly. This support has been consistent in polling going back to 2013.

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Strongly support55%
Somewhat support16%
Somewhat oppose10%
Strongly oppose11%
Don't know/No opinion7%

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Strongly support80%40%38%
Somewhat support8%17%23%
Somewhat oppose5%9%15%
Strongly oppose4%18%16%
Don't know/No opinion3%16%8%

Even Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s alleged Achilles heel on this issue — his over-exuberant pledge to take people’s assault weapons during his ill-fated presidential campaign — was popular in Texas around the time he said it. In October 2019, a majority of Texans said that they would support a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons. This is likely still a bridge too far for Texas in 2022 (even in the unlikely event of a significant change in leadership), but it points to the fact that Texans might be more open to some gun restrictions than the state’s politics, or policy, would lead many to believe. 

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Strongly support47%
Somewhat support12%
Somewhat oppose8%
Strongly oppose25%
Don't know/No opinion8%

3. The permitless carry bill the Texas Legislature passed in the first session after the El Paso shootings was opposed by a majority of Texans. Both during the legislative session and after, polling found a majority of Texans opposed to allowing legal gun owners over the age of 21 to carry a handgun without a license or training. 

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Strongly support19%
Somewhat support19%
Somewhat oppose13%
Strongly oppose42%
Don’t know/No opinion7%

In short, there were few who were clamoring for this policy given the underlying preference among Republicans to leave gun laws alone. But in a session in which many, if not most, activated constituencies in the Republican Party were rewarded with wish list items, a policy that was considered too radical for Texas not only in the previous legislative session, but at the beginning of the session in which it passed, is now law. As Jim Henson and I wrote at the time:

“...this is about the relatively small slice of the most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries, especially in the non-presidential election years in which Texas statewide officials are elected.”

4. State leaders and the legislature received high marks from Republican voters for their handling of 2nd Amendment rights AND gun violence during the last session. Despite, or because of, the legislature’s rightward shift on guns in the last session, state leaders and the legislature received high marks from Republican voters on their handling of these issues, the primary target audience post redistricting. Among Republicans, 70% approved of how state leaders and the legislature handled second amendment rights in Texas, 57% strongly; and for good measure, 62% approved of how they handled the issue of gun violence.

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Approve strongly4%20%57%
Approve somewhat5%16%23%
Neither approve nor disapprove19%25%8%
Disapprove somewhat13%12%5%
Disapprove strongly50%20%2%
Don’t know/No opinion9%8%5%

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Approve strongly4%9%31%
Approve somewhat3%12%31%
Neither approve nor disapprove8%28%20%
Disapprove somewhat13%11%5%
Disapprove strongly66%25%5%
Don’t know/No opinion5%15%7%

Some of these results surely come down to partisanship, but they point to both an active and tacit reward that elected Republicans receive from GOP voters for seeming to move the needle on the gun issue. And while not every Republican may think that permitless carry is a good idea, they’re more likely to think that it is than it isn’t — and even if they don’t, it doesn’t mean that they support a dramatic curtailment of gun rights in Texas.

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Strongly support5%23%30%
Somewhat support6%14%32%
Somewhat oppose11%12%15%
Strongly oppose75%37%15%
Don’t know/No opinion3%15%8%

5. It might just boil down to voters’ views on whether there should be fewer guns or not. Republican candidates typically, with hyperbole, say that Democrats are going to take away all the guns. Democratic candidates, meanwhile, focus on whom they would like to keep guns from and the types of guns they would like to limit (or even buy back). But tacitly, though sometimes actively in the Democratic argument, is the fact that Democrats really would like to reduce the number of guns in circulation, while Republicans have made clear that they have little interest in limiting the amount and extent of gun ownership or guns in circulation. Taking these views together, it’s possible that what these debates really come down to, but rarely directly address, is a fundamental difference in worldview about the nature and results of broad gun ownership. Most recently in April of 2021, we asked Texas voters whether they think the U.S. would be more or less safe if more people carried guns. Overall, the plurality of Texans, 39%, said that the U.S. would be less safe, but an almost equal share, 34%, said the U.S. would be more safe.

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More safe34%
Less safe39%
No impact on safety16%
Don’t know/No opinion10%

Among partisans, 74% of Texas Democrats said that more guns make people less safe, while 61% of Republicans said that more guns increase safety (i.e. the good guy with a gun). Ultimately, this view, reinforced by views about the causes of mass shootings, make it unlikely that Republican voters will reconsider their opposition to Democrats, or support for Republicans, based on this issue alone because fundamentally, and maybe especially in the context of these tragedies, one side thinks there should be less guns, one side more. Even if Texas partisans largely agree on some degree of gun control (especially to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill), and have, by no means been clamoring for the state’s rightward shift on gun regulations, when partisans talk about the impact of guns on society, they’re talking about fundamentally different things.

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More safe6%30%61%
Less safe74%27%13%
No impact on safety14%17%18%
Don’t know/No opinion5%26%9%