Elementary school shooting: What gun control laws might US voters support?

An elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut, in which 20 children were killed, could focus attention on gun control laws. Polls show Americans are open to limited forms of gun control.

Jessica Hill/AP
People embrace at a firehouse staging area for family around near the scene of a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where authorities say a gunman opened fire, leaving 27 people dead, including 20 children, Friday.

Will the heartbreaking school shooting in Newtown, Conn., lead to more support for gun control measures in the US? That’s certainly possible. The deaths of so many innocent children, so young, are likely to earn the crime a place on a tragic roll call of recent American history. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Tucson, Ariz. Aurora, Colo. And now Newtown.

Certainly those who have long pushed for greater control on gun ownership see the awful event as yet another teaching moment to try and sway public opinion to their side.

“How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation?” said Marion Wright Edelman, chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund, in a statement Friday afternoon.

Yet in the past such calls, however emotional, have done little to sway the American public’s general attitudes towards guns. US citizens tend to see mass shootings as resulting more from troubled individuals than from easy availability of firearms.

For instance, a Pew Research survey taken in the wake of July’s shootings in an Aurora cinema found that 67 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that mass gun killings such as that “are just the isolated acts of troubled individuals.” Twenty-four percent said they “reflect broader problems in American society.”

The Pew poll found US attitudes toward guns little changed after Aurora. Prior to the shootings, 45 percent of respondents said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 49 percent said it was more important to protect the right to own guns. After the shootings, 47 percent said gun control was more important, while 46 percent said gun rights were more important.

Other polls echo the fact that this is a question on which the US is generally split. A 2011 Gallup survey found that 44 percent of voters thought US gun laws should be tightened, while 43 percent felt they should be kept as-is.

Yet this might not be quite the whole story. What’s clear is that US public opinion is against most flat gun bans. Seventy-three percent of respondents told Gallup that they would not support the banning of handguns, for instance.

Presented with detailed choices, however, many voters approve of particular moves to control or limit firearm ownership.

A ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, which can carry more than 10 bullets, appears to be widely popular. A 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey found 57 percent support for such a ban, and 39 percent opposition.

A CNN/ORC poll from last August found an almost identical result on the clip question.

As to whether all gun purchasers should undergo a background check to determine if they have committed a felony, 96 percent of respondents said “yes,” in the CNN/ORC survey.

Majorities also favored banning AK-47-style assault rifles, preventing convicted felons and the mentally ill from possessing firearms, and requiring gun owners to register guns with their local government.

The CNN survey showed Americans opposed limiting the number of guns an individual can own – but only by a 45 to 54 percent margin.

“The public favors most sensible gun policies, policies the US does not have,” concluded Harvard public health professors David Hemenway and Robert Blendon after analyzing public polls.

Finally, gun ownership in the US is already on the decline. In the 1970s, about half of US homes had firearms, according to the long-running General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. Today only about one-third do.

“Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes,” writes Patrick Egan, an assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University in a post at the Monkey Cage blog.

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