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New poll: Most teenagers and adults think arming teachers is dangerous, favor minimum age for buying assault rifles

- March 9, 2018

In the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., the activism of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and elsewhere has drawn national notice. Although federal action on gun control is uncertain, the Florida state legislature on Wednesday passed a bill to impose a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, raise the minimum age for purchasing those weapons to 21, and allocate funds to improve school security and train and arm school employees.

Now, a new poll shows what both American adults and teenagers feel about measures like those in the Florida bill. The poll was conducted online by the firm SurveyMonkey from Feb. 26 through March 5. In total, 20,975 adults were interviewed along with 733 teenagers. (Further information about SurveyMonkey’s methodology is here, and more details are below.)

Polls about the political attitudes of teenagers are relatively rare. In this poll, teenagers’ views about guns and school safety weren’t always much different from those of older-age cohorts. Gun control simply does not divide generations all that much. At the same time, teenagers were distinctively skeptical about the value of arming school officials and teachers. Measures like those in the Florida bill aren’t likely to make most students feel safer.

Here are five key findings:

1. Teenagers were especially likely to worry about mass shootings.

When asked whether they worry about being the victim of mass shootings, respondents under the age of 18 were more likely to say they “worry a lot.” This fraction declined in older cohorts. One explanation is that the visibility of the Parkland shooting and other school shootings makes teenagers feel distinctively vulnerable. Teenagers were also more likely than older cohorts to report having taken part in active shooter drills.

2. However, teenagers were not necessarily following the news of the Parkland shooting closely.

Although the victims in Parkland were mainly teenagers, the teenage respondents in this survey were not especially likely to be following the news about that shooting:

Only one-third of teenagers said they were following the news of the shooting closely. Older cohorts were more attentive, on average. This shows that the distinctive impact of the Parkland shooting on teenagers cannot necessarily overcome a familiar pattern: Older people pay more attention to politics, period.

3. Teenagers were more likely than older cohorts to prioritize gun control, but not necessarily more likely to approve of gun-control proposals.

The SurveyMonkey poll asked “In order to prevent future deaths from mass shootings, would you prioritize federal action on mental health or gun policy?” Respondents under 18 were evenly split: 48 percent said mental health and 49 percent said gun control. Among adults 18 and over, 57 percent said mental health and 41 percent said gun control. So teenagers were not by any means overwhelmingly in favor of prioritizing gun control, but they were more in favor than older cohorts.

However, support for certain gun-control measures was fairly widespread among all age cohorts. One example was requiring people to be at least 21 to buy guns like an AR-15 rifle:

In fact, the most supportive cohorts were the oldest, not the youngest. But in general, there was a lot of consensus. This is interesting, as younger cohorts are more liberal than older cohorts in other respects. In this poll, for example, teenagers reported a less favorable view of both the NRA and Donald Trump than did adults and even 18- to 24-year-olds.

But overall, age cohorts did not differ much on gun-control measures, as the Pew Research Center and others have found. Another example from this poll: When asked whether “a federal ban on assault-style weapons would make the U.S. a safer or more dangerous place,” 68 percent of teenagers said “safer” and so did 66 percent of adults 18 and older.

4. Most Americans, including teenagers, were pessimistic about the value of arming teachers.

After the Parkland shooting, Donald Trump and others advocated arming teachers to deter mass shootings in school. But in the SurveyMonkey poll, most Americans thought this would make school more dangerous, not more safe. If anything, teenagers were a bit more pessimistic than older cohorts. It seems unlikely that this aspect of the new Florida law will put most minds at ease — and certainly not students.

5. A narrow majority of teenagers said that student activism will make a difference.

When asked whether student rallies for stricter gun control will lead to meaningful changes in our society, 58 percent of teenagers said that it would, compared with 47 percent of adults. The one-third of teenagers who “worried a lot” about mass shootings were the most optimistic: 72 percent said the student rallies will lead to meaningful changes. But clearly optimism is not universal, even among teenagers.

It is important to note — as John Quiggin recently argued — that thinking of public opinion in terms of age cohorts or “generations” is limiting. There are often a lot of differences within age cohorts, based on education, income, party identification, and the like. That was certainly the case among the teenagers in this sample. For example, there were big partisan divides: 67 percent of teenagers who identified as Republican wanted to prioritize mental health over gun control, while 66 percent of teenage Democrats wanted to prioritize gun control. There were similar splits in views of the NRA. Partisan polarization isn’t just an adult phenomenon.

For the Stoneman Douglas students and others pushing for gun control, the Florida bill is at least a partial victory. But attention to the issue is fading, and it remains unclear whether the political activism of teenagers will produce tangible progress toward their policy goals — especially at the federal level.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted Feb. 26 to March 5, 2018, among a national sample of 20,975 adults and 733 teens. Respondents for this survey were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 1 percentage point for those questions asked of adults and 4 percentage points for those questions asked of teens. Data for have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 13 and over.