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?

Steve Helber/AP
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.

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.

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.

Members of Congress seeking to increase gun control are similarly aiming at niche issues. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) of New York wants to ban extended magazines – like the ones used in the Tucson shooting. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York wants the federal background-check database to include people rejected by the military for drug use – a measure that would have prevented Tucson suspect Jared Lee Loughner from buying a gun legally.

But larger gun-control priorities have mostly been abandoned. President Obama came into office promising to restore the assault-weapons ban. He has instead signed two gun-rights laws, allowing licensed guns on Amtrak trains and in national parks.

"You have to pick your fights, and I think [Obama] just decided [gun control] was a losing battle," Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia told The Hill newspaper recently.

The Arizona shootings provided no boost for gun-control advocates. Only 1 in 5 Americans believes stricter gun laws could have prevented the shooting, Gallup reported.

At the state level, gun laws are expanding. For instance:

•Bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature to allow college students and professors to carry guns on campus.

Florida state Rep. Jose Diaz (R) proposed a bill that would waive roadblocks for Floridians buying guns in Georgia and Alabama. Also in Florida, Republican lawmakers filed a bill that would prohibit doctors and their staff from asking patients if they own guns.

•In Wisconsin, momentum is building under newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker to end the state's ban on concealed weapons. Wisconsin, Illinois, and the District of Columbia are the only states and federal jurisdictions that currently have such a ban.

•Arizona's pro-gun legislature is also expected to take up debate on two bills filed before the Tucson shooting, including one that would allow gun owners to display a weapon in self-defense.

•In Virginia, the legislature is on track to address a number of gun-rights bills, including a proposal to end Sunday hunting bans and a reciprocity law that would force the state to honor concealed-carry permits from other states.

Indeed, state expansion of gun-carry rights has become the norm. The number of states that automatically issue concealed-weapons permits after a background check has gone from nine in 1980 to 37 today. Twenty-four states allow people to openly carry guns, 11 of which require no permit to do so. And 25 states now have "castle doctrine" laws that protect homeowners from the legal ramifications of shooting intruders on their property.

"The pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment [set] has won the day in the court of public opinion," says Mr. Franklin. "There's zero evidence, at this point, that shootings and mass killings have had any real effect on that."

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has played its part in promoting gun rights. Observers say it has consistently stoked fears among its members that Democratic administrations intend to curtail Second Amendment rights. President Wayne LaPierre famously said at a Phoenix convention in 2009, "The people with the guns make the rules."

The NRA's growing political clout is witnessed by the speaker list at its last two annual conventions. It included Sarah Palin, presumed 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, and Republican Governors Association head Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

Yet, in many ways, the NRA is merely seeking to corral a grass-roots revolt. Through the blogosphere and talk radio, gun-rights advocates have returned the gun-rights movement to its Second Amendment core: that gun rights are a bulwark against the perceived expansion of government power – a basic tenet of America's unique tradition of rugged individualism.

"The gun has become the symbol of the conservative vision of freedom," Joan Burbick, author of "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy," told the Monitor in 2009.

At a pro-gun rally at the Virginia capitol on Jan. 17, gun-toting protester D.J. Dorer told The Associated Press that incidents like the Tucson shooting should not be used as an excuse for "destroying the Constitution."

To some, such as the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, such reactions are evidence of national paranoia, rooted in irrational fears of minorities and a predilection for violence. "[We're] a nation that invades other countries, that has a huge weapons budget, seems so intent on violence being the answer, and I think that's the thing we want to dance around," he told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow after the Tucson shootings.

But evidence that guns promote violence is mixed. Only 1 percent of gun deaths come from people protecting themselves from attack, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

During an assault, the same study found, a victim with a gun is 4-1/2 times more likely to get shot than an unarmed one. In all, 100,000 people are injured or killed by gunfire every year in the US, and the gun-homicide rate here is 20 times higher than it is in most other developed countries.

Yet Arizona, which more than any other state, perhaps, embodies America's Old West credo, has less gun violence per capita than does Washington, D.C., where guns are far more restricted.

The next frontier for gun-rights advocates is "open carry," epitomized last year by protests in which permitted gun owners carried firearms in plain view at Starbucks coffee shops. But the gun-rights community is split over the issue, keenly aware that a misreading of the American public's view of the Second Amendment could backfire.

"The idea that we should look like the Old West, with everybody carrying a pistol on their hip, that's where public opinion is not yet clearly ready to go," says Franklin. "Open carry is out there on the frontiers and it's not clear [gun-rights advocates] have won the public on that issue."

IN PICTURES: States with the strictest gun laws

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