More than half of Americans see the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday as a sign of broader problems in society, not merely the isolated act of a troubled individual, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The finding reverses a recent trend in which the public saw mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz. as aberrations that did not reflect underlying problems in American culture. It comes amid new calls for an assault weapons ban from anti-gun advocates — and from lawmakers, including some who have been devout defenders of the right to bear arms.
But the Washington Post poll did not show a significant shift in public opinion on the gun issue itself. A clear majority of Americans continue to support a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition clips — the kind used at Sandy Hook last week, and in other recent high-profile killings. Just over half support banning semi-automatic handguns, which automatically reload every time the trigger is pulled. At the same time, nearly three out of four Americans continue to oppose banning the sale of all handguns except to law enforcement officers.
As the people of Newtown, Conn. began to bury their dead on Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a conservative Democrat and National Rifle Association member, told MSNBC that the massacre of 20 children and six adults by a gunman wielding a military-style rifle made clear the need to consider new regulations on assault weapons.
“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” Manchin said on “Morning Joe” on Monday. “I don’t know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.”
Manchin personifies the group of lawmakers who in the past have blocked efforts to impose stronger regulations on gun ownership. He got an A rating and an endorsement from the NRA in both the 2010 special election and 2012 general election for his seat. In a memorable campaign ad, he shot a copy of a cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.
But on Monday he said the schoolhouse massacre “changed the dialogue, and it should move beyond dialogue. We need action.” The gun lobby, he said, should be part of that conversation.
“Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered,” Manchin said. “Anybody that’s a proud gun owner, anybody that’s a proud member of the NRA, we’re also proud parents. We’re also proud grandparents.”
President Obama, speaking Sunday night at a memorial service for the victims, did not mention guns specifically, but seemed to allude to a need for stronger gun-control laws, pledging to “use whatever power this office holds . . . in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has vowed to introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress. Retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) has also called for reinstating the ban, which expired in 2004.
The apparent support expressed by Manchin for considering such a ban illustrated the extent to which the shooting Friday has shaken the nation to its emotional core.
“This awful massacre has changed where we go from here. Our conversation should move beyond dialogue,” Manchin said on Twitter. “Everything needs to be on the table, and I ask all my colleagues to sit down to talk about firearms, mental health and our culture.”
The Post poll also reflected a strong shift in perception among Americans — not about gun laws, specifically, but about what mass shootings represents. After the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. this summer, for example, about 24 percent of Americans said the incident indicated a broader problem in society, and 67 percent called it an isolated event. In 2011, asked about the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Ariz., 31 percent saw evidence of a broad societal problem; 58 percent did not. The percentages reflected a continued shift in public opinion since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, which 46 percent of Americans said reflected festering problems in the national psyche.
The latest reversal, however, is even more dramatic. A poll conducted Friday through Sunday showed 52 percent of people considered the Sandy Hook massacre a sign of something deeply wrong in America. Only 43 percent called it an isolated act.
In Newtown, a picturesque town about an hour north of New York City, classes at all seven schools were cancelled on Monday. Teachers were meeting at the high school to prepare for the return Tuesday of students from all schools except Sandy Hook.
The kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school that was targeted will be closed indefinitely, Newtown’s school superintendent said, to allow families time to grieve and give administrators a chance to figure out how best to proceed.
The first funerals — for Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto— were to take place Monday afternoon, along with a wake for James Mattioli, according to a list of burial arrangements compiled by the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association. All three boys were six years old.
State police Lt. Paul Vance told reporters that police continue to scour both the Sandy Hook school building and the home of gunman Adam Lanza. They are looking for evidence that will help them understand why Lanza allegedly killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at home, then went to the school and gunned down 20 children and six staff members before taking his own life.
“We’re going to hold those locations until we’ve completed our work,” Vance said. “Every single round of ammunition will be looked at for any kind of physical evidence.”
Vance said police were investigating several potential threats that had been received regarding local churches and schools. Two schools in nearby jurisdictions were locked down briefly while police investigated and cleared reports of possible threats.
“We’re all obviously on edge,” Vance said. “Anything that appears to be any breach of security, or a possible breach of security, will be treated very, very seriously.”
He said investigators are eager to speak to anyone who knew or treated Adam Lanza, and to find out everything they can about him. So far, little is known except that he was very bright and socially awkward.