PRINCETON, NJ — A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds Americans dubious that the heated language used in politics today was a major factor that influenced the alleged gunman in last week’s shootings in Tucson, Ariz. Twenty percent say such rhetoric was a major factor in the shootings, while 22% cite it as a minor factor; 42% say it was not a factor at all. Democrats are more likely than independents or Republicans to believe political debate played a role.
The poll was conducted Jan. 11, three days after Jared Loughner allegedly shot and killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., and seriously injured numerous others including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Some of the early news coverage of the shootings discussed whether the increasingly inflammatory language used in political debate today could have motivated the shooter to attack the Democratic member of Congress. That theory was put forth by the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., who argued that conservative thought leaders like Sarah Palin use language that may encourage their supporters to commit acts of violence against their opponents.
Most Americans reject that theory, with 53% agreeing that commentators who allege conservative rhetoric was responsible were mostly attempting to use the tragedy to make conservatives look bad. Roughly one in three, 35%, say the commentators were making a legitimate point about how dangerous the language used by conservatives can be.
Though Americans doubt that the language used in political debate was a motivating factor in the shootings, they are inclined to believe all major U.S. political groups are going too far in using inflammatory language to criticize their opponents. In fact, Americans are about equally likely to say Democrats (51%) and Republicans (53%) are guilty of this. A similar percentage also believe this applies to supporters of the Tea Party movement.
Lax Gun Laws Not Seen as a Major Cause
Usually, mass shootings result in a public discussion of the role that gun laws played in the crime, and perhaps whether tougher laws or better enforcement could have prevented it. In the Arizona case, the accused gunman passed a background check and was legally able to purchase the gun used to commit the crime, even though many believed he was mentally unstable. However, Arizona’s gun laws are somewhat weaker than those in other states; for example, the state allows its residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Most Americans, though, do not believe tougher gun laws in Arizona would have prevented these shootings. One in five say stricter laws would have prevented the tragedy, while 72% disagree. Democrats, who are more likely to support gun restrictions, are also more likely to believe the shootings could have been prevented if tougher gun laws were in place, but a majority of this group still says the shootings would have occurred regardless.
Gallup found almost identical responses in 2007, when Americans were asked whether stricter gun laws could have prevented the mass shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech.
Americans generally believe that the political language used in this country on all sides has become too heated, but stop short of identifying it as a major cause of the recent shooting of a Democratic congresswoman and some of her constituents. Americans also do not see weak gun laws as a major contributing factor. Though the poll did not ask about it specifically, these attitudes suggest Americans may be laying responsibility for the shootings squarely on the alleged killer, perhaps due to his reported psychological problems, rather than on larger societal factors.