Guns, God and Gays: Public Opinion on Gun Rights, Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage

The survey Stephen Ansolabehere and I placed in the field this past July included many questions on so-called “moral values” issues. Most of the book, Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195329422/amazon0156-20/ which I edited with Pat Egan and Jack Citrin, also covers these issues. The trajectories of opinion in this category of issues do not seem to be following a consistent pattern, and it is interesting to speculate why. I will focus in this post on gun rights, abortion, and same sex marriage.

First, guns: It is well known that support for stricter gun laws has been going down for some time. See http://www.gallup.com/poll/123596/In-U.S.-Record-Low-Support-Stricter-Gun-Laws.aspx . Our survey included the question: “In general, do you agree or disagree that an individual should have a right to have a registered handgun at home?” 52% strongly agreed, 30% agreed somewhat, 10% disagreed somewhat, and 7% strongly disagreed. This is also consistent with polls concerning views of the Second Amendment, where over 70 percent view gun ownership as an individual right. See http://www.gallup.com/poll/105721/Public-Believes-Americans-Right-Own-Guns.aspx
It appears that support for gun rights has increased during Obama’s first year in office, although the trajectory seems to be a continuation of a trend that began during the last years of the Bush Administration. See http://www.pollingreport.com/guns.htm

Next, abortion: Our survey asked the traditional question: “In general, do you agree or disagree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion?” 37% strongly agreed, 24% agreed somewhat, 13% disagreed somewhat, and 25% strongly disagreed. Majorities also support various restrictions, such as a 24-hour waiting period (79% favor), parental consent (74%), a ban on late term abortions (74%), and requirement for doctors to inform women of alternatives (90%). Several surveys have suggested that trends in the last year have been moving in a pro-life direction, See http://www.gallup.com/poll/122033/U.S.-Abortion-Attitudes-Closely-Divided.aspx , although not all polls are pointing in that direction and the differences are probably not large enough yet to make firm conclusions. See http://www.pollingreport.com/abortion.htm . As Sam Luks and Michael Salamone detail in our book, aggregate opinion on abortion has moved up and down a little since Roe, but not in any consistent trajectory. In short, most Americans favor abortion rights, although not for all reasons, and they also favor many restrictions.

Finally (until the next post) gay rights: Like several recent surveys we find 41% of respondents support legalization of same-sex marriage, but find that 48% support federal government recognition of same sex marriages where they are legal. As compared to other surveys we find a much higher level of opposition (70%) to state bans on sex between two people of the same gender. As Pat Egan and I have written elsewhere,
http://www.pollingreport.com/penp0908.htm , the trend in favor of same-sex marriage suggests a majority will support it within five years. Much of this is being driven by cohort replacement rather than attitudinal change – that is, opponents of same-sex marriage are older and when they die off, younger respondents with more liberal attitudes on gay rights take their place. Although the public, in the aggregate, backlashed against same sex marriage in the wake of Lawrence v. Texas and the Goodridge decisions in Massachusetts, that backlash ended sometime after the 2004 election and reversed by 2005. Since then, the pro-marriage equality position has grown by about 1.7 percentage points per year. The trend has been relatively uniform across states: states that have legalized or illegalized same sex marriage, by court decision, referendum or legislation, do not exhibit a trajectory different from other states. Although states differ greatly in their level of support, they all appear to be moving in the same direction and events since 2004 appear to have had no effect.