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Will Sikh temple shooting spark US conversation on gun control?

The Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting elicited renewed calls for gun control, but surveys show it's not a pressing issue for the US public. Obama and his spokesman talked only of combatting violence.

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White House spokesman Jay Carney elaborated a bit on this issue, saying Obama “believes that we have a broader issue with violence in America that needs to be addressed from a variety of angles, including efforts that this administration has undertaken to work with local communities, to try to get children out of gangs ... to get kids back in school, working with local law enforcement in their efforts to fight crime.”

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Pressed on the issue, Mr. Carney added that Obama will “continue to instruct his administration to take action towards common-sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens but make it harder and harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law to obtain them.”

This noncommittal response reflects a broader political reality: Americans are deeply split about the prospect of new gun laws, and tragic events such as the recent mass killings do not change voter opinions.

A recent Pew Research Center survey noted that in the wake of the Aurora shootings there was little change in the public view of gun control issues.

“Currently, 47 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. This is virtually unchanged from a survey earlier this year in April, when 45 percent prioritized gun control and 49 percent gun rights,” said the July 30th study.

Similarly, there was little change in public attitudes following the Tucson shootings and following the shootings at Virginia Tech University in April, 2007, according to Pew.

However, focusing on the narrow issue of whether the US needs more gun control laws or greater protection of Second Amendment rights may miss some important trends regarding guns and violence.

According to an analysis of the issue from New York University political scientist Patrick Egan, recent mass shooting events are anomalies.

“First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years,” wrote Egan in a post on the Monkey Cage political blog in the wake of the Aurora tragedy.

Violent crime rates are now lower than at any time since 1972, according to Egan. Murder rates have declined to levels not seen since the administration of John F. Kennedy.

“Second, for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows,” writes Egan.

In the 1970s, about half of respondents to national polls said they kept firearms in their homes. Today that corresponding percentage is about one-third. And as Egan notes, the biggest drop has occurred in ownership of handguns and shotguns, the weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes. This may explain why public appetite for gun control has waned in recent decades.

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