Last week, local news stations sent reporters to high schools all over the Triangle to document the walk-outs organized by students in protest of inadequate gun control. This movement differs from past reactions to mass shootings in two major ways: 1) it has prompted widespread and enduring action, and 2) its momentum is owed chiefly to high school students, most of whom aren’t even old enough to vote.
After interviewing some of the protestors, AJ Janavel from CBS17 came to NC State to talk to the Pack Poll about the factors that may have helped prepare them for this movement. He wanted to know, “Why now? What’s different this time?”
Drawing on the results of our most recent survey, we offered some data-points that may have been helpful in unpacking these questions. The network must have deemed our insights uninteresting to (or over the heads of) its viewers. So, instead, we’ll present them to our brilliant and contemplative readers here!
What’s different about Parkland?
Polls conducted after mass shootings don’t usually reveal any major shifts in gun attitudes. Reactions are most evident among those living in close proximity to recent shootings; but even then, they are modest. National support for gun control reform saw a slight, short-lived increase after shootings in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas – but, ultimately, Americans are evenly split and remarkably steadfast in their attitudes on guns.
Why is the reaction so much more dramatic this time around? Several polls show support for gun control reform reaching new heights following the Parkland shooting. Has the typically brief and trivial knee-jerk reaction to mass shootings simply reached more people this time; or, is it no longer a knee-jerk?
My semi-educated guess: all of the above. The Parkland shooting seems to have affected the opinions of more Americans than previous shootings have. Established gun attitudes might not be shifting much, but new voices are being heard. Presumably, these new opinions are coming from a generation of energized and impassioned youth, and their added voices are causing an overall shift in public opinion. The significance and endurance of this shift, however, will not necessarily be determined by where new opinions are coming from – it will depend on the salience and certainty of these opinions. I argue that the attitudes young people are now bringing to the table are of a different nature than the ones previously observed.
Attitudes and Attention
Earlier this month, we reported that support of stricter gun laws among NC State students had reached an all time high. Following the Parkland shooting, 67% of NCSU undergraduates support a nationwide semi-automatic weapons ban. In 2013, a month after the Sandy Hook shooting, only 41% of students expressed support for the ban.
We also asked how closely students were following the story of the Parkland shooting in the news. 68% reported having followed the story “closely”, and only 6% reported not following the story at all. This high level of attention could be one of the drivers for State students’ surge in support for gun control reform.
The graph above is divided by varying levels of attention to the Parkland story. Support among those not following the story closely is shown to the left, and support among those who are following closely is shown to the right. We’ll call these groups the inattentive and the attentive. While both groups show majority support for the ban, the level of support for the attentive is much more pronounced.
Those who either “support” or “strongly support” the ban make up 64% of the inattentive; they make up 75% of the attentive. Even more noteworthy is the difference of intensity between these groups. For the inattentive, “support” and “strongly support” make up 26% and 33% of responses, respectively. For the attentive, the difference is much more striking; 21% “support” the ban, and 54% “strongly support” the ban.
Driving intense support from a modest plurality to a clear majority, level of attention is clearly a key variable at play in understanding the sudden increase in support for certain gun regulations among NC State students. Students who are paying attention are more likely to support increased regulations on guns than students who aren’t.
Attention and Party ID
The majority of NC State students identify as Democrats, so overall observations of opinions expressed in our surveys aren’t always sufficient for understanding differences across party lines. The bars in the above graph are color-coded by party ID in order to make this distinction clear.
Predictably, the attention variable appears to have a different relationship with Republicans than with Democrats. While attentive Democrats show greater support for the ban than inattentive Democrats, attentive Republicans show less support than inattentive Republicans.
This is not your ordinary “Newton’s-third-law” type of phenomenon, though. The reactions are opposite – but they are not equal.
9% of Republicans “strongly oppose” the ban, despite not following the story closely. When you include Republicans who are following the story closely, strong opposition climbs to 31%. On the other hand, 13% of Democrats “strongly support” the ban when not following closely; when those following closely are included, strong support reaches a full 66%.
Our findings suggest that while the relationship between one’s level of attention to the news and one’s attitudes on gun control follows predicable party lines, its effect leans disproportionately toward support for gun control.
In the news segment that features our interview, AJ Janavel points to a rising prevalence of social media use as a key factor driving the intensity of this movement. While this is part of the story, it’s not sufficient for understanding the bigger picture. Young people’s high engagement with social media is nothing new; Pew’s social media fact sheets show levels of youth engagement have been somewhat steady since 2010. It’s not about how much these kids are sharing on social media; it’s about what they’re sharing.
Social media as a news source has been on the rise among all age groups in recent years. As we well know, not all news is good news. However, a case study by Pew provides evidence to suggest that young people are quite capable of distinguishing between credible news sources and “fake news” sites shared on social media.
Data scientists recently reported that 78% of Twitter users are younger than 30, and 28% are teenagers. The average Facebook user is 40-years-old. The aforementioned case study shows that Twitter users have been particularly prudent in determining the credibility of the news sources they share; other research suggests the same cannot be said for their older counterparts on Facebook.
In other words, this new generation isn’t just showing youthful zeal when it comes to current political issues; they’re also showing incredible acumen.
It’s impossible to know how far this wave of youth involvement will go. Some have suggested that the innocence and ignorance of young people warrants them less “credence” than they’ve been afforded, and that their activism won’t make a difference in the long run. Michael Cobb, Associate Professor of Political Science at NC State – and father to a teen involved in the movement – predicts otherwise.
“These kids are unbelievably savvy,” Cobb tells Janavel. “Instead of letting this fall down the memory-hole like it usually does, they’re already planning to stage another [walk-out] soon. They’ve seen the way this stuff plays out in the news, and they’re not letting it happen. They’re creating their own avenues for change.”
The level of engagement and mobilization from students around the country in response to the shooting in Parkland is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years. It’s unclear whether this event initiates a turning point in gun control attitudes, commences the rise of a uniquely engaged and influential generation, or simply reveals both as evolving features of modern society that were previously overlooked. What we do know is that when it comes to the way we talk about gun control – and the role that young people play in that conversation – things just ain’t like they used to be.
NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: This PackPoll took place February 22-25, 2018. The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 3,500 NCSU undergraduates and 3,500 NCSU graduate students. The true population of undergraduates and graduate students taking at least one face-to-face class on campus is 21,192 and 7,113, respectively. However, 44 students are minors and 814 more have privacy flags preventing contact, slightly reducing the population eligible to be sampled. Each student remaining in the population had an equal chance of being contacted because each student is required to have a unique “ncsu.edu” email.
Of those invited to participate, 712 undergraduates and 731 graduate students completed the survey, a total of 1,443, resulting in a 21% response rate. Assuming a 50-50 division in opinion calculated at a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of sampling error for the sample is (plus or minus) +/-2.5% for questions answered by the full sample. However, sampling error increases for each estimate when three or more choices were offered, for example, when fewer respondents were asked a version of a question, or when analyzing the opinions of sub-groups, such as when looking just at how female respondents answered a question.
The response rate for just the undergraduate student sample is 20%, and 21% for graduate students. Likewise, the margin of sampling error for describing the opinions of just undergraduates in this survey is +/-3.6%, while it is +/-3.4 for graduate students.
In addition to sampling error, other forms of non-sampling error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, and non-response bias (low response rates), but these types of error are not precisely quantifiable.
We only apply post-stratification sample weights for student status when describing the opinions of “all” students. Undergraduates comprise 75% of the student population, but just 49% of our sample, so weighting is necessary to accurately describe the views of all students. There is a slight under-representation of males in our undergraduate sample, but not enough to warrant further weighting of that population it would not produce noticeable effects on any of the results.