May 25, 2022

Will the Uvalde School Shooting Spur A Shift In Public Support Toward Gun Control Legislation? The Surprising Answer Might Be, ‘Yes’

Look to the intersection between ‘mental health care’ and ‘background checks’ as a place to start.

Another week, another horrifying school shooting in the United States. At least 19 children and 2 teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Texas on Tuesday. This time (once again!) the young age of the victims magnified the trauma of the event, rendering the usual “hope and prayers” of feckless politicians maddeningly inadequate. 

The question of the hour: Will there be a meaningful response from the government? And what should that response look like? 

It’s no secret that we live in a divided nation, and the issue of gun control appears to be one of the most unbridgeable fault lines. But traditional surveys over the years have provided glimpses of common ground. For instance, somewhere between 53-64% of Americans favor stricter gun laws while a striking 84% of voters, including 77% of Republicans, support universal background checks

Now all eyes are on Texas, as the National Rifle Association (NRA) hosts its annual meeting in a few days in Houston, only a four-hour drive up the road from the site of Tuesday’s massacre. Slated to speak: Texas Governor Greg Abbot and Senator Ted Cruz, both at the vanguard of efforts to loosen gun laws even further. 

On one hand, the appetite of the public for gun control tends to increase immediately following school shootings; on the other hand, this is Texas, stronghold of the NRA. The search for that elusive common ground couldn’t be more urgent. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

In this context, we thought we’d take a look behind the headlines to see what a cross-section of Americans were thinking—and feeling—in the wake of the tragedy. We wanted to hear from real people in their own words. Just a few hours after the Uvalde school shooting was first reported, we launched a Glimpse study to 140 registered voters across the United States. Within 30 minutes, the responses had all rolled in. 

The headline numbers more or less reflect years of familiar survey data. 61% of participants wanted stricter gun control; 39% were in favor of less strict laws or the status quo. 30% of participants were gun owners; 70% were not. 

But people didn’t just answer the multiple choice questions; instead they wrote long, thoughtful and anguished responses—in their own words—about what should be done. Here’s what we discovered:

  • Glimpse’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine revealed that the highest sentiment was around ‘students’ (unsurprisingly) but also ‘mental health help’ and ‘god.’ That is, participants both on the political left and right focused on the spiritual and emotional health of students.
  • Proposed solutions were equally divided between a focus on gun control, school security, and mental health care.
  • But there was significant overlap between the ‘mental health’ and ‘gun control’ topics. And again between the ‘mental health’ and ‘school security’ topics.

It’s possible that gun control legislation focusing on background checks, framed as a way to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people deemed likely to turn those guns on themselves or others, could be a source of common ground. (Of course, the big question is who counts as ‘mentally ill’ and how such a law could be enforced. It’s vital not to demonize those who suffer from mental illnesses—or paint them with a single brush—in the rush toward a solution).

This is a course gun control advocates have pursued in the past, but the Glimpse data, gathered while feelings about this most recent horror were still raw, indicates that there may be more opportunities to mobilize public opinion against the gun lobby on this terrain. The NRA event in Houston will be a fascinating test case. 

Here are a some particularly resonant quotes from participants that were gathered in about 30 minutes:

  • Here a politically moderate female echoes a talking point of the gun lobby —
"it’s not the gun that kills; it’s the crazy person that kills”

— but in support of a universal registry and background checks to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing guns.

“I think there should be a registry for drs and health organizations that if there is any sign at all a patient has any mental issues they not be allowed to buy or be in possession of a gun. its not the gun that kills, it is the crazy person that kills.”

  • While an extremely conservative female of around the same age who votes Republican and lives in the South comes out against increased gun control but in favor of making it impossible for “criminals” or “minors” to obtain guns. 
“I’m not sure but I think reducing an prohibiting guns is the wrong answer. I don’t think criminals and minors or criminals should have guns but current laws for obtaining a fire arm I think are fair.”

  • Another extremely conservative white Republican voter, this time a male in his 60s, also endorses a law enforcement focus on mental health.
“I think we should focus on mental health more and have the FBI and Law enforcement look more on social media to see if there are any trends or hate related posts from individual's”

  • A slightly conservative independent who would like to purchase several guns for himself focuses exclusively on mental health care.
“Re-open mental health facilities across the nation.”

  • While an elderly Democratic female endorses the emerging common ground between gun control and mental health.
“Some way to keep guns out of hands of mentally Ill people and seeing that help us available for people. I’m not sure that it will help.”

A single set of Glimpse responses can never definitively answer the “What is to be done?” question, or even suggest a particular political strategy. But it can help uncover insights about a promising path forward. And maybe, just maybe, uncover some emerging common ground to stand on amidst the flood of violence.

Written by Adam Bai.

Adam runs strategy for Glimpse. Adam is a Cultural anthropologist by training, and has created and taught courses on innovation and leadership for MBA and Executive Education students at institutions like Columbia University and the MIT Sloan International Program in Beijing.