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Tucson shooting spotlights US shift on gun control

Since the Tucson shooting on Jan. 8, federal gun control advocates have made little headway and many states are considering expanding gun rights. Why?

By Staff writer / January 24, 2011

Gun enthusiast D.J. Dorer (back to camera), of Yorktown, Va., carried his AR 15 pistol outside the Richmond, Va., capitol during a Jan. 17 rally urging state lawmakers to relax Virginia’s gun laws.

Steve Helber/AP

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Atlanta

Far from launching a flurry of comprehensive gun-control bills in Congress and statehouses, the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., has instead only emphasized how entrenched gun rights have become in America during the past 20 years.

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The 1994 ban on assault weapons – which has since lapsed – remains the last major piece of gun-control legislation passed by Congress. While a number of gun-control measures are now being proposed on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, none is sweeping and each could well fail.

Meanwhile, states are actively expanding gun rights. Even in the days after the Tucson attack, Arizona legislators moved forward with a plan to allow guns on college campuses.

IN PICTURES: States with the strictest gun laws

The national recalibration on gun control comes as Americans' interpretation of the Second Amendment has shifted – embracing the right to "keep and bear arms" as a fundamental expression of individual rights. Within conservative groups like the tea party, gun rights has become a primary symbol of the pushback against the steady expansion of the federal government's purview.

This has helped gun-rights advocates maintain their momentum despite other mass shootings, such as the ones at Virginia Tech in 2007 and at Columbine High School in 1999.

Yet polls suggest that support for gun rights is not absolute. Even gun owners support certain gun-control measures, such as increasing the amount of information fed into the federal background-check database.

As it considers new gun-control measures post-Tucson, Congress is seeking to find where, exactly, that balance now lies.

Gun-support "polls have dipped a blip after Virginia Tech or Columbine, but the long-term trend is still one that's fundamentally moving toward less support for gun control and more support for gun rights," says Charles Franklin, a pollster at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Now, if you phrase questions about extreme forms of gun rights – automatic weapons or open carry – the support is shakier."

A recent poll, jointly conducted by Democratic polling firm Momentum Analysis and Republican firm American Viewpoint, points to where gun-control laws might be successful.

Some 85 percent of gun owners (and 89 percent of Americans) would endorse a bill to require background checks for all guns sold at gun shows. An even larger share of gun owners – 90 percent – would support a bill to beef up background-check databases to better prevent the mentally ill and drug abusers from buying guns.

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