Will Colorado shootings inject gun control into 2012 race?

Gun control activists say the Colorado shootings should be a wake-up call, but Americans' views on guns aren't swayed by individual tragedies, polls show. The candidates know that.

Jason ReedReuters
President Obama arrives at the White House in Washington, July 20. Obama cut short his election campaigning in Florida and returned to Washington following the shooting at a Colorado movie theater.
Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters after speaking about the tragic mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado at an event in Bow, N.H., Friday, July 20.

Will the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings inject gun control into the 2012 presidential debate?

That’s what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes. Mayor Bloomberg has long been one of the nation’s loudest voices calling for greater restrictions on American gun access, and on a radio show Friday morning he demanded that President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney say what they’d do about this issue.

“I mean, there are so many murders with guns every day, it’s just got to stop,” Bloomberg said on talk show host John Gambling’s WOR show. “And instead of the two people – President Obama and Governor Romney – talking in broad things about they want to make the world a better place, okay, tells us how. In the end, it is really the leadership at a national level, which is whoever is going to be president of the United States starting next Jan. 1, – what are they going to do about guns?”

If history is any guide, however, Bloomberg is likely to be disappointed. In recent years high-profile tragedies similar to the Colorado killings have generally not produced sustained, high-level political debate about possible gun control legislation, said gun control expert Kristin Goss in an interview with Current TV.

“I don’t think either party has any interest in touching the subject of gun control in an election year,” said Goss, an associate professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, on Current TV’s news blog.

After tragic shootings that receive national media coverage the focus tends to fall on the individual who carried them out, according to Goss.

Polls tend to bear this assertion out. In the wake of the 2011 Tucson shootings, which left six dead and Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded, there was no significant change in public attitudes toward gun control and gun rights, according to the Pew Research Center. A Pew survey found the US largely split, with 49 percent saying it was more important to protect the right to own guns, and 46 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership.

Few respondents to the poll saw the Tucson tragedy as emblematic of broad social problems. Fifty-eight percent judged such events “the isolated acts of troubled individuals.”

In general over the last decade or so there has been a pronounced shift in national attitudes toward guns, with more Americans lining up on the gun rights side of the issue, according to Pew and other pollsters.

In 1990, for instance, Gallup found that 78 percent of Americans favored stricter gun control laws, while 19 percent favored less strict or unchanged gun laws. By 2011, only 44 percent favored more gun control, while a majority of 54 percent favored looser gun regulations.

Gallup trends on gun control show that Americans have grown less supportive of strengthening gun laws in the United States over the last two decades, notwithstanding a number of tragic gun attacks during that period,” wrote Gallup’s Frank Newport and Lydia Saad in 2011.

Politicians can read polls, of course, and this trend shows why it is unlikely that President Obama or other Democrats will use the Aurora tragedy as a reason to push an ambitious new gun law agenda.

Activists on the issue are a different case, however. Some gun control groups on Friday were already citing Aurora as a means to rally support for congressional action.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which was founded by former Reagan press secretary James Brady after he was wounded in the assassination attempt on his boss, posted a petition on its web site for visitors to sign if they felt the Aurora tragedy was a reason to help prod lawmakers towards more gun control legislation.

CNN talk show host Piers Morgan tweeted extensively on the issue, saying, among other things, that “America has got to do something about its gun laws. Now is the time.”

Meanwhile, the contestants in the presidential contest emphasized the sadness of the movement and the need to put politics aside, for now.

“We can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado,” Mitt Romney said in an appearance in Bow, N. H.

“There are going to be other days for politics,” Mr. Obama said in Ft. Myers, Florida. “This is a day for prayer and reflection.”

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