A generation ducks: Gun violence and youth behavior

Opinion by Cyrus Beschloss
Oct. 30, 2019, 7:13 p.m.

There is a growing crack in the notion that Americans snap back to business as usual after every mass shooting. Turns out millions of us, unfortunately, don’t.

Yes, Congress seems incapable of converting popular support for modest gun reform into law. Gun lobbyists have gripped the agenda, and drag the Republican party line far from where the general public lands on gun reform. And Democrats oftentimes lose modest gains in a quest for perfect legislation.

But young people aren’t waiting for legislation. They’re ducking and covering. An eye-opening survey by the polling company College Reaction, just completed for WBRU, Brown University’s student-owned digital media workshop, revealed that almost half of American college students — 45% — reconsider attending public events for fear of gun violence. A combination of psyche-gripping mass shootings and Congressional lethargy is hampering young people’s day-to-day lives.

Extra alarm bells for Congressional consideration: Polling found that 97% of college students support background checks and that 74% support an assault weapons ban. And even before the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, polling found that students identified gun violence to be the second biggest threat to the U.S. — following only to climate change and landing far ahead of student debt. 

Young people are far more unified on gun reform than their alarmed elders. But even Americans at large support stronger gun control legislation. A HuffPost/YouGov poll found in August that almost 60% of Americans want to ban assault weapons entirely. And according to a 2018 Monmouth poll, 69% of NRA members support comprehensive background checks. These figures fracture the notion that only specific segments of the country want gun reform. 

While many adults may have surrendered to the assumption that Congress will stand still, students have become increasingly emphatic in demanding action. In 1969, a Gallup poll found that 44% of U.S. college students opposed the war in Vietnam. Despite constituting a narrow sliver of the college student population, student activists rocked American society through vigorous protest. Today, roughly double that number support aggressive gun control. 

The fury that charged the anti-war movement back in the day now animates the activism of students paralyzed by fear to skip concerts or ditch bars. But, while they watch their backs for now, they are nevertheless thundering for change.

Already we’re seeing signs that these Gen-Z’ers — the 61 million Americans born after 1996, for whom Sandy Hook, Parkland and El Paso represent more tangible acts of terrorism than 9/11 — are attracted to norm-smashing solutions. For instance, our polling revealed that 3 out of 4 college students support banning NRA donations to politicians — a measure not even on the table in the mainstream debate. Furthermore, our Presidential Support Index has found that candidates like Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren have outsized support from young people — all of whom are waging their own versions of a “break-the-mold” campaign.  

Our polling statistically confirms the anecdotal sense of anxiety and mounting frustration that we, as college students ourselves, have detected among our peers. The numbers represent an inflection point in Gen-Z attitudes. In recent years, new infrastructure supporting gun control activism has emerged, including March for Our Lives and Never Again, injecting new life into a frozen gun debate. If Congress fails to heed the groundswell, that spirit could fade and fester into fear and resentment. For now, the legislative thumb-twiddling has ignited energetic activism, but if that too fails to produce even basic legislation, we may risk sending a generation into a cynical tailspin that leaves them detached from the political process and resigned to accepting the status quo. 

Active-shooter drills have etched fear into young minds, and the oft-present “Breaking News” chyron for a mass shooting has built a reflex in my generation to eye the exit and survey crowds. My own friends’ anxiety about gun violence and appetite for a remedy is reflected by these statistics — young people are scared, but ready to demand change. 

A note on College Reaction’s polling methodology:

The data in this report are generated from a poll conducted between Aug. 2 and 3. A total of 511 panelists participated in the poll. The margin of error for the full sample is +/- 4 points.

College Reaction’s polling is conducted using a demographically-representative panel of college students from around the country. The surveys are administered via college email addresses to ensure current enrollment in a four-year institution. The target population for the general population sample was students currently enrolled in accredited 4-year institutions in the US.

Respondents in this poll were randomly selected from a proprietary respondent database, which aims to mirror the broader college demographic from a racial, geographic and political standpoint. Results are weighted to mirror race and gender statistics of the college demographic as defined by the National Center for Education statistics.

College Reaction delivers the survey to the randomly-generated sample of students and uses email authentication to verify current enrollment. Students typically have 24 to 48 hours to fill out the given survey.

Contact Cyrus Beschloss at cyrusb ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon