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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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"I was sitting next to a woman who was talking about an argument about guns she'd been having with her husband, who was born in Utah," says Mr. Fiorina. When the woman said that she, not her American-West-born husband, was the one who feels she has a right to defend herself with a gun, says Fiorina, "I was speechless. I wouldn't have seen those attitudes a few years ago. Part of it is I think this sense that authorities can't protect you, but there's also a broader sense that it's not just about hunting and the Second Amendment, but really personal defense and personal autonomy."

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Misunderstood majority?

To be sure, the Democratic Party of today includes fewer Southerners and fewer conservatives, and, consequently, contains fewer traditional gun-owning demographics, says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. Yet, he adds, "There is this kind of suburban gun owner who isn't part of the traditional gun-culture demographic, but it's hard to nail how that group breaks down."

There are hints of what could be called a misunderstood gun-rights majority. The Pew survey on personal rights and freedoms found that the share of Americans who feel "threatened" by the government has gone from 38 percent in 1995 to 53 percent today; and that a hefty 44 percent of non-gun-owning Americans share concerns about Washington growing tyrannical as the economy threatens to lock into slow, European-style growth.

The Obama administration doesn't have to look that deep to justify pushing ahead with a battery of gun-control proposals, as well as 23 executive orders strengthening US gun safety.

Democrats "feel that there's little to lose by pushing this issue right now," says Adam Winkler, author of "Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America." "The Democratic Party has become less dependent on white swing-state voters who love guns ... and [party members] realize that they can win swing states by appealing to their core constituencies rather than appealing to Republicans."

At the same time, Mr. Winkler adds, Americans "still love their firearms, and it's going to take a lot more than the Newtown shooting to end that."

Bendable on controls but not on Obama

To that end, the White House has been particularly careful, in light of these realities, of how to frame the debate. Yes, one survey showed the biggest political winner of 2012 was the embattled Planned Parenthood organization, while the avowed electoral power loser was the NRA. But the White House is really contending with broader sympathies, in part because Obama himself has emerged as a particular lightning rod on the gun issue.

"It's your guns," Obama said at a campaign stop in 2008. "We're not going to mess with them, all right? I hope I made that clear. Is everybody clear back there in the back? Because I see a couple sportsmen back there. All right? Spread the word with your friends. I'm not going to take away your guns."

There was skeptical quiet.

Obama's election and reelection both spawned frantic runs on guns and ammunition, causing the American Thinker blog to declare Obama the "best gun salesman in history." The president's post-Newtown gun-control push again sparked fear and political backlash that seeped into the debate.

Strong majorities of Republicans, for example, told a Washington Post/ABC News poll in January that they support the major tenets of proposed reforms – gun show background checks (89 percent), background checks to purchase ammunition (69 percent), bans on high-capacity magazines (59 percent) – yet a whopping 72 percent of Republicans oppose Obama's push, which proposes the same changes.

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