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Gun control: Future hangs on misunderstood majority of gun owners

Gun control seen through the eyes of the misunderstood majority of gun owners is more nuanced and complex than the absolutism of America's big gun lobbies. The Obama administration is courting this breed of centrist, gun-friendly Americans on the fence about gun control.

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Race complicates the debate, starting with research showing that the Madisonian roots of the Second Amendment sprang from racial fears, or at least from fears of slave revolts. It's a small historical leap from there to gun-purchasing inspired by fear of crime in black urban cores, and on to the first White House push for gun control in two decades being led by the first black president.

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Moreover, many other Americans sense in this gun-carrying paradigm a self-fulfilling dystopia not so subtly responsible for a pattern of, on average, one mass shooting involving four or more victims a month since 2009, according to the gun-control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

That's partly why some of the divides around guns are so absolute. For example, according to a poll by the Reason Foundation, 68 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents say assault weapons should not be banned, a view shared by only 33 percent of Democrats.

And according to exit polling in the 2008 election, 58 percent of suburban Republicans claimed gun ownership versus 27 percent of Democrats. That, in the words of New York Times statistician Nate Silver, means that "whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person's political party" than gender, race, geographical location, and most other demographic characteristics.

Yet other polls find vast common ground on gun control among those demographic divides. Last year, a poll by GOP pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members supported more comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers – a reform that University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says is the most likely to become law.

After what happened in Newtown, Melvin Clark Jr., a National Guard veteran and gun instructor in Boston, finds himself slipping a bit into that divide. An NRA member, he still turns to the Constitution as his ultimate guide.

"A lot of people make the argument that our Framers ... could not have imagined the advancements in firearms, and I agree. They were brilliant, but they could not see the future," says Mr. Clark. "But if you were to ask them if Americans should be armed as well as any British soldier, what might they say?"

As strongly supportive of the Second Amendment as he is, Clark concedes he does not toe the NRA line completely: He'd like to see Washington take registration and licensing over from the states, if only to make gun laws more uniform and easier to enforce.

Clark's pragmatism explains a key paradox of today's gun debate: If Americans are so darn divided on the gun issue, then why did the New England Journal of Medicine just conclude from a large post-Newtown survey that "We found smaller differences than we anticipated between gun-owners and non–gun-owners."

Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political scientist and author of "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," takes a stab at an explanation.

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