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Hamilton College Hot Button Issues Poll: Guns, Gays and Abortion
Hamilton College
By Dennis Gilbert
Professor of Sociology, Hamilton College
January 2006

The Hamilton College Hot Button Issues Poll explored the opinions of this year's high school graduating class on guns, gays and abortion. We selected high school seniors for this seventh in the Hamilton Youth Poll series as representatives of a rising generation of Americans and potential voters in November 2006. One thousand seniors were contacted for the survey, designed by Hamilton researchers and conducted in collaboration with the polling firm Zogby International.

The Hamilton Hot Button Issues Poll revealed that members of the high school class of 2006 are twice as likely as adults to support legal recognition of gay marriage. Three quarters of this year's graduates favor recognition of same-sex marriages or civil unions.  The poll also found that support for strong handgun control measures is almost universal among high school seniors. Though liberal on gay and gun issues, this year's high school graduates are remarkably conservative on the issues surrounding abortion.  We found that most high school seniors regard abortion as morally wrong and would significantly limit a woman's right to choose.


The conservatism of the class of 2006 on abortion was the major surprise in the poll, since previous Hamilton Youth Polls had shown that high school students are typically liberal on public issues. When they answered our most general questions on the issue, high school seniors appeared supportive of abortion rights.  Sixty-two percent of seniors told us that they want  the Supreme Court to preserve the 1973 Roe v. Wade  decision guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion. About half described themselves as "pro-choice" and said they believe that abortion should be legal in "all" or "most" cases.  But their answers to more detailed questions reveal that the great majority of seniors would significantly restrict access to abortion. For example, two thirds of high school seniors would require parental permission before a woman under the age of 18 could legally obtain an abortion.

We asked the seniors whether they thought a woman should have a legal right to an abortion in the six specific circumstances listed in Table 1 -- all of them constitutionally protected under current law. We found strong support for the right to abortion when a pregnancy represented a serious threat to the woman's health or resulted from rape.  But the majority of high school seniors did not support the right to abortion in any of  the other four, fairly common circumstances. Fewer than one in five seniors recognized the right to abortion in all six.

Table 1. Support for Right to Abortion
Percent Supporting Right to Abortion
Pregnancy serious threat to woman's health
Pregnancy result of rape
Woman under 18 and unmarried
Baby will probably have serious birth defect
Family poor, cannot afford more children
Woman married, doesn't want more children
Answers to other questions in the poll suggest that these opinions about the legal issues surrounding abortion are influenced by strong pro-life sentiments. Two thirds of the seniors told us they believe abortion is always or usually "morally wrong." Asked whether a high school senior who becomes pregnant should keep the baby, give it up for adoption or have an abortion, 26 percent suggested the first and 54 percent the second alternative. Only 13 percent proposed abortion.  An open-ended question on this same topic in a preliminary pilot poll elicited similar responses. In rejecting the abortion option, many students stressed the girl's moral responsibility. "She took the chance of having sex," noted one. "She made a decision and needs to live with it," insisted another. But none of the students referred to her male partner's moral responsibility. Many high school students are not strangers to this issue. Half the females and 36 percent of the males polled say they know someone who has had an abortion. We asked females whether they would "consider" abortion if they became pregnant in high school and males whether they would want their partner to do so.  The response from 70 percent of females and 67 percent of males was "No." However, the relatively high proportions of seniors who know someone who has had an abortion suggests they might themselves be more open to it if faced with a real decision about their own lives and futures. But being compelled to consider abortion would obviously be painful for most high school seniors.

GAY ISSUES In contrast to their views on abortion, the great majority of the high school class of 2006 holds liberal, pro-gay opinions. Eighty percent think the law should protect gays against job discrimination. Regarding the issue that has roiled courts and legislatures in recent years, three-quarters of seniors support some form of legal recognition for gay relationships (Table 2).  More than half would recognize same-sex marriages. An additional 20 percent would permit gay couples to form "civil unions giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as inheritance, health insurance, pension coverage and hospital visiting privileges." Nearly two-thirds of seniors told us that same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children. Support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is predictably thin among high school seniors.

Members of the class of 2006 were similarly pro-gay in their responses to a series of items designed to measure positive and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Almost eighty percent thought gay people should be "accepted by society."  Seventy percent agreed with the statement, "Gay people contribute in unique and positive ways to society."  (See Table 3). Measured by an index of attitudes toward gays averaging responses to these items, 70 percent of high school seniors are "pro-gay, " including 22 percent who can be considered "very pro-gay."

Table 2. Opinion on Gay Issues

Support gay marriage Support civil unions Oppose both
Support amendment to constitution banning gay marriage.
Support adoption by same sex couples.
Table 3. Attitudes Toward Gays
Percent Pro-Gay  
70.9  Gay people contribute in unique and important ways to society
79.7 Lesbian women should be accepted by society.
77.7 Gay men should be accepted by society.
52.1  It would be better if gay people kept their sexual orientation hidden.
59.6 Gay lifestyles are morally wrong (% disagree)
71.9    Lesbians are disgusting (% disagree)
65.9  Gay men are disgusting (% disagree)

Approximately 20 percent of high school seniors are staunchly anti-gay -- that is, they reject both gay marriage and civil unions and hold negative attitudes toward gays, as measured by our index. Over 80 percent of anti-gay seniors believe that "homosexual relations between consenting adults" should be illegal and regard gay people as "disgusting." Both attitudes are rare among seniors, outside this anti-gay minority. Many of our respondents thought the very notion of labeling gays "disgusting" was laughable. Anti-gay seniors are typically observant and born-again Christians, who view homosexuality as a moral or religious issue

This poll is the second in the Hamilton Youth Poll series to measure the attitudes of high school seniors toward gays and gay issues. The more detailed Hamilton Gay Issues Poll was conducted in 2001. Comparison of the two polls does not suggest significant changes in attitudes.

Table 4. Handgun Control Measures

Percent favoring measure  
53.4 Make laws governing the sale of firearms stricter
88.4 Require 5-day waiting period between purchase and delivery of handguns
95.7 Register all handguns at time of purchase
63.4 Raise age for legal purchase of handgun from 18 to 21.
30.9 Ban handguns possession except by police and other authorized personnel.

Our poll found that many high school seniors had direct or indirect experience with firearms. About half indicated that they had fired a gun. A disturbingly high proportion, 35 percent, told us that they knew of someone at their school who had been shot at or threatened with a gun. Surprisingly, neither condition had much influence on opinion about gun control. Those who had fired a gun were less supportive of the general notion of stricter gun control but, like others polled, overwhelmingly favored the key registration and waiting period measures. Those who reported threats or shootings at their school were statistically indistinguishable from their classmates.

A previous Hamilton survey, the Youth and Guns Poll conducted in 2000, took a more detailed look at high school students' experiences with guns and their  opinions about gun control. The earlier study also found near universal support for the most commonly proposed control measures, including several not included in the current poll. Although the majority favoring stricter gun laws in their response to the generic question was about 10 percent higher in the first study, the percentages supporting the registration and waiting period measures were almost exactly the same. Because the Youth and Guns Poll surveyed high school sophomores and juniors in addition to seniors, the two studies are not strictly compatible.

GENDER, RACE, CHURCH, AND OTHER VARIATIONS This section uses the three questions below to gauge demographic variation among high school seniors on the issues explored in our poll.

Abortion --Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?

Gay Rights --  Would you support or oppose a law that would allow same sex couples to get married?

Gun Control -- In general, do you feel that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?

The responses of seniors in various demographic subgroups to these questions are compared in Table 5. The abortion column gives the percentage of seniors in each subgroup who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; the gay rights column, the percentage who would support gay marriage and the gun control column, the percentage who feel gun laws should be more strict . (For the distribution of seniors across demographic categories see the)

As the table suggests, gender and race are generally weak predictors of student opinion on these three issues. It is, however, worth noting that males (especially white males) are more conservative on gun control, and blacks are significantly less supportive of gay marriage than whites or Hispanics

The table shows that religion and reported church attendance are powerful influences on abortion and gay marriage opinions. Among high school seniors, born-again Christians and those who attend services four or more times a month are notably more conservative on these two issues. The nation's Catholic bishops will not be pleased to learn that this cohort of young Catholics is about average among their peers on the abortion issue. But they may find some consolation in the wide gap separating two groups of Catholic students: the typically pro-life seniors who attend mass regularly and those who don't.3 As in previous Hamilton Youth Polls, in the current poll, the South and Central regions appear more conservative. But the distinctly conservative tilt of Southern students evident in the table, especially on the gay marriage issue, reflects the high proportion of born-again Christians in the region. Thirty-seven percent of our Southern respondents described themselves as born again. Without them, 59 percent of Southerners would recognize abortion rights in all/most cases and 54 percent would support gay marriage

The political geography of opinion on our three issues was mapped by dividing the Class of 2006 into residents of Blue, Gray and Red states. Blue states are those in which the Democratic presidential candidate received more than 55 percent of the major party vote in 2004. Red states are the corresponding Republican strongholds. The more closely contested Gray states will presumably decide future elections. The cleavages separating Blue and Red state seniors on these three issues parallel the gaps between Democrats and Republicans shown at the end of the table. More interesting are the opinions of the 40 percent of high school seniors who live in the 19 Gray states. Republican leaders will be pleased to learn that these seniors are closest to their peers in the Republican-oriented Red states on all three issues

Table 5. Demographic Differences

Born Again
Other Protestant
Other Religion
No Religion
Attends Church
0 - 3x  / mo.
Over 3x / mo.



Blue State
Gray State
Red State
Other/Not Sure

COMPARISONS WITH ADULTS Comparisons between our survey and recent adult polls indicate that the high school class of 2006 is conservative on abortion and liberal on gun control like older Americans, but far more liberal than adults on gay issues

National polls conducted by media organizations and university researchers reveal that about 50 percent of adults would describe themselves as "pro-choice" and more than 60 percent say they would not want to see the Roe v. Wade decision overturned. But the majority also regards abortion as morally wrong and would not concede a woman's legal right to abortion except in extreme circumstances, such as rape or significant threat to the health of the mother. This is precisely the inconsistent, conservative leaning pattern we have found in the Class of 2006.4 With respect to gun control, more than 50 percent of American adults, responding to the same generic question used in our poll, say gun control laws should be stricter. Support for specific gun control measures is substantially higher. 5 Again the pattern is similar to what we found among current high school seniors.6

Because of the intense current political interest in the issue, there has been extensive polling on gay marriage in 2005. Several surveys conducted this year, employing language similar to our own, found that support for legal recognition of gay marriage was limited to 20 to 27 percent of adults. The higher figure is half what we recorded among high school seniors. On the other hand, adult support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage ranges from 45 to 54 percent in recent polls, compared to 26 percent of high school seniors.7

CONDUCTING THE HAMILTON HOT BUTTON ISSUES POLL The Hamilton College Hot Button Issues Poll is the seventh in a series of national youth surveys conducted by Hamilton faculty and students. These studies are intended to take advantage of the academic expertise of faculty and the life experience of Hamilton students. Most funding for these surveys is provided by Hamilton's Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center, which paid all costs for the survey analyzed here

The Hot Button Issues Poll was designed and analyzed by Hamilton Sociology Professor Dennis Gilbert and the Hamilton students whose names are listed on the inside cover page of this report. The sampling and calling were administered by the polling firm Zogby International and done in two phases. The first was a 100-call pilot survey, conducted in October 2005.  Calls for this phase were made by the Hamilton student researchers at Zogby International facilities. On the basis of the results from the pilot study, the questionnaire was rewritten by the Hamilton team. The redesigned questionnaire was administered to a national sample of 1,000 high school seniors in calls made from November 10 to 20, 2005, by Zogby International. 

In theory, a random sample of 1,000 is accurate within plus or minus 3 percentage points.  However, obtaining a random national sample of high school seniors is more difficult than drawing a national sample of adults or households. The demographics of the second stage data suggest that a trustworthy national sample was obtained.  For the analysis presented here, the sample was reweighted for sex and region. Because the original sample was reasonably representative, these adjustments had little effect on the results. Non-sampling problems, such as unintended ambiguities in questionnaire language and less than candid responses, can also affect survey accuracy.

Footnotes: [1] In the current poll, high school seniors are equally likely to agree that "homosexual relations" should be legal; slightly more likely to favor protection for gays against job discrimination; and slightly less likely to accept adoption by same-sex couples. They are eight percent less supportive of gay marriage, but differences in the question used make this comparison problematic. The 2001 survey did not ask about civil unions

[2] Taken by themselves, these questions are, in an absolute sense, problematic measures of opinion, but they are useful here for the purpose of comparing population groups.  [3] Sixty-two percent of those who attend services fewer than 4 times a month, but only 41 percent of those who attend more frequently, agreed that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. The two groups are respectively 55 and 45 percent of the Catholic students polled

[4]The adult surveys were conducted by Gallup, Gallup for CNN/USA Today, Fox News, Time/CNN, CBS, and Pew, from 2003 to 2005.

[5]Adult polling on gun control was done by Gallup, CBS, Harris, and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (General Social Survey) from 2003 to 2005. 

[6] Comparisons between the 2000 Hamilton Guns and Youth Poll and adult polls conducted about the same time, suggested that the high school students were somewhat more liberal than adults on gun issues. Neither our own data from the current poll nor the currently available adult statistics permit precise comparison today. [7]The marriage and amendment comparisons were with adult polls conducted in 2005 by ABC/Washington Post, CBS/The New York Times and Gallup for CNN/USA Today, and the Boston Globe