New Orleans —
Public opinion polling by the Pew Research Center says nearly two-thirds of Americans expect gun violence to increase over the next five years. The politics of enacting more restrictive gun laws has long divided most Republicans and Democrats, and now the issue appears to be creating a divide between generations of Republicans as well.
Several polls released this year show young Republicans are likelier to support more restrictive gun laws than older voters in their party.
“Older Republicans didn’t grow up in a mental health crisis like we have,” said Nicholas Stilianessis, a 14-year-old from Passaic County, New Jersey, and a member of the High School Republican National Federation.
“Suicides and suicide attempts are higher for us than any generation before, and, of course, so are school shootings,” he told VOA. “I’m sad for the loss of life, but I’m also angry because politicians in both parties aren’t doing anything about it except using it as a tool to campaign.”
A YouGov survey in February 2023 reported that 47% of young Republicans support more restrictive gun laws, compared with just 23% of older Republicans. And the figure for young Republicans is growing, up from 41% in August 2022.
“It makes sense,” said Ryan Barto, communications manager with March For Our Lives, a student-led organization that demonstrates in support of gun control legislation. “Young people bear the brunt of the gun violence epidemic. We’ve lived with active shooter drills, constant news coverage of mass shootings, and have lost friends to firearms. There isn’t room for partisan politics when lives are on the line.”
Stilianessis was quick to point out, however, that he doesn’t support all — or even most — gun control measures.
“Gun control is broad,” he said, maintaining that people should be able to own guns for self-protection. “For me, I’m in favor of stronger background checks, I don’t think anyone should have automatic weapons, and because mental illness is such a big part of these shootings, I think we need to screen better for mental health before we give someone a gun.”
Eugene Johnson is a professor at Dillard University in New Orleans. He says younger Republicans tend to support laws restricting gun ownership based on a gun-seeker’s age, mental health and history of violence.
“I think Republicans, and possibly most Americans, will want to arm themselves because they care about safety and it’s easier to arm themselves than it is to pass public policy,” Johnson told VOA.
The Gallup polling organization reported in 2020 that 32% of U.S. adults say they personally own a gun, while 44% reported living in a gun household.
“Young Republicans seem in agreement that the problem isn’t guns, but that the wrong people have access to them,” Johnson said. “The kinds of laws they’re supporting are popular because they don’t fully remove guns. They look at limiting who should have them.”
But for some older Republicans, even that is too restrictive. Alberto Perez, a 44-year-old development officer from Blairsville, Georgia, believes the younger members of his party will change their minds as they get older and take on more responsibility.
“They don’t bear the weight of raising a family and having to keep them safe,” Perez told VOA. “I may agree in theory with some sensible gun laws that make it more difficult to purchase and keep a gun, but the reality is that criminals and psychopaths will find a way around it and that puts the rest of us in danger.”
Willow Hannington, 20, said she is open to increased regulations.
“I’m willing to consider things like universal background checks and mental health evaluations,” she told VOA. “I think implementing mandatory gun safety courses is a good idea, as is hosting community events to destigmatize gun use and promote safe handling and procedures.
“Mostly, though,” she added, “I want to see legislators address gun violence through mental health reform. That’s where the crisis is.”
While support for gun control among young Republicans is growing, a majority of young party members still oppose restrictions.
“Not only do we not believe there should be any further gun restrictions put in place,” said Mark Basta, 19-year-old vice chairman of the California College Republicans, “but we believe all current restrictions should be repealed because they are unconstitutional, and they punish law-abiding citizens rather than actually affect criminals.”
“Any young Republicans who support gun control,” he continued, “are most likely doing so because of a lack of knowledge and brainwashing by their schools and peers.”
Hannington said opinions like Basta’s make her feel stuck.
“I think many of us in Gen-Z are passionate about improving our society and open to compromise in areas like gun control,” she explained. “But Democrats take advantage of our compassion … and Republicans tell us we don’t have the knowledge or maturity to understand the issues.”
“Honestly, I’d like to see more people from my generation run for office,” she added. “I think we’re wiser than most people think, and we’d be able to diminish the political divide we’re seeing today.”
“One big question is whether support for gun restrictions among younger-generation Republicans is due only to the effects of mass shootings, or if their opinion is stable and will continue into the future,” said James Garand, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
“I don’t think it will impact this election, but if it persists, and they make up a higher share of the Republican coalition, I think it could affect some low-intensity gun restrictions in the future.”
If he were old enough to vote in 2024, Stilianessis said, he would “absolutely support” a Republican who considers some gun control measures.
“Current legislators don’t focus on what the youth need and want,” he said. “They’re not listening to us. But we’re the future of the Republican Party, and one day they’ll have to pay attention to what we say. Because this is an issue that concerns us, and when they’re long gone, we’ll still be here dealing with it.”