US gun massacres mount up, but no more gun control. Why?

The United States has seen a string of recent mass shootings, but support for stiffer gun control has dropped. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre – and most Americans, polls show – say the emphasis should be on the mental health system.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Aurora, Colo., theater shooting survivor Stephen Barton speaks during a rally on gun control on Capitol Hill Thursday. Mr. Barton was shot in the neck, and received shrapnel wounds on his right arm and chest and cuts to his face. Twelve people were killed and 70 wounded in the theater massacre.

At a memorial service Sunday evening, President Obama will join the loved ones of the 12 people killed in a rampage at the Washington Navy Yard in last week.

“I'll be meeting in mourning with families in this city who now know the same unspeakable grief of families in Newtown and Aurora and Tucson and Chicago and New Orleans and all across the country, people whose loved ones were torn from them without headlines sometimes or public outcry," Mr. Obama said in a keynote speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Saturday night.

Obama also acknowledged his failure to get new gun-control legislation passed.

“That means we've got to get back up and go back at it, because as long as there are those who fight to make it as easy as possible for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun, then we've got to work as hard as possible for the sake of our children,” he said.

Not surprisingly, National Rifle Association (NRA) executive director Wayne LaPierre has a different view.

“The whole country knows the problem is there weren’t enough good guys with guns!” Mr. LaPierre said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in reference to the navy yard shooting Monday. “When the good guys with guns got there, it stopped.”

No matter which point of view one chooses to emphasize, statistics gathered by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence are grim:

• One in three people in the US knows someone who has been shot.

• On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day, and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.

• Every day on average, 51 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 45 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.

• The US firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.

• Although guns can and have been used successfully in self-defense in the home, a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to injure or kill in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.

The cost in children’s lives – those killed and those who have survived but are still dealing with the physical and emotional effects of gun violence – is particularly heartbreaking.

Nearly one in four American teens has witnessed a shooting, according to the Brady Campaign, an average of eight children and teens under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day, and American children die by guns 11 times as often as children in other high-income countries.

One of the 13 people wounded in a gang-related assault rifle attack in Chicago Thursday night – law enforcement officials said it was a “miracle” that no one was killed – was a 3-year-old child. The 14-year-old son of one of those killed at the navy yard had been shot and killed four years earlier.

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December – which killed 20 first-graders and six adult educators – many observers believed the time had finally come for tougher gun control in the United States.

But that has not happened.

Congress failed to adopt expanded background checks for the 40 percent of gun sales requiring no checks. Two pro-gun-control state legislators were bounced from office in a recall election. The NRA has successfully lobbied to prevent other measures, such as restrictions on the purchase of military-style assault rifles and large ammunition magazines.

Recent headlines proclaim that “Gun Control Polls Find Support Sliding For Harsher Laws” (Huffington Post) and “Gun-control advocates losing ground in the states despite mass shootings” (The Washington Post).

A YouGov/Economist poll shortly after the Newtown school massacres had 60 percent of those surveyed favoring stricter gun control. But a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken right after this week’s navy yard shooting had that figure down to 48 percent.

A Gallup poll out Friday finds that support for stricter gun laws has fallen from a high of 58 percent after the Newtown shooting to 49 percent now. 

Gallup analyst Lydia Saad explains one reason why:

“While guns are a common denominator in the high-profile mass shootings that have shaken the nation in recent years, another has been the mentally unstable individuals committing the crimes,” Ms. Saad writes. “The Washington Navy Yard case shares this element with some of the most familiar massacres of recent decades, including those occurring in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; Oak Creek, Wisc.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Littleton, Colo., as well as at Virginia Tech.”

“Many of these cases involve stories of failures in mental health systems to raise sufficient red flags about the risk the ultimate perpetrators could represent,” she writes.

In another Gallup poll taken shortly after the Newtown shootings, respondents were asked what lawmakers and the president should focus on to prevent more school shootings. Sixty-five percent said school security systems and the mental-health system; 30 percent chose laws on the sale of guns and ammunitions as most important.

Still, that Gallup poll in January also found strong support for universal criminal background checks for gun sales (91 percent) and for reinstating the ban on sale of assault rifles in effect from 1994 to 2004 (60 percent). A majority also favored limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds or less (54 percent to 43 percent).

In the wake of the two mass shooting this past week, the NRA’s position remains the same: More firearms in the hands of responsible gun owners who might have prevented such mayhem, and an improved mental health system whose record-keeping should connect with existing background checks.

“The Aurora shooter in Colorado gets checked and is cleared, the Tucson shooter gets checked and gets cleared, [Washington Navy Yard shooter] Aaron Alexis goes through the federal and state check and gets cleared,” the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre said on “Meet the Press.”

It may be unlikely that Congress will adopt stricter gun-control measures, but Obama has taken some executive steps aimed at reducing gun violence – 25 steps in all, according to the National Journal – which do not require congressional authorization.

“The president's highest-profile move was to nominate and get confirmed Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, filling a seat that had sat empty for more than six years,” National Journal reports. “But Obama has also initiated a series of quieter initiatives, including new rules to keep guns away from felons, better coordinate mental-illness screenings, and better preparing local law enforcement and schools to respond to shootings.”

“Down the line, the rules could be changed by a subsequent administration, or Congress could hamper their efficacy by at some point cutting the funding to enforce them,” National Journal notes. “But, for now at least, Obama can move forward without waiting for anyone else's permission.”

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