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Why the Aurora shootings won't likely change the gun control debate

at 08:39 AM ET, 07/20/2012

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado early Friday morning are almost certain to re-stoke the debate over whether more gun control laws are needed, a conversation that has lain near-dormant since early 2011 when former. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) was shot in Arizona.


Police are pictured outside of a Century 16 movie theatre where as many as 14 people were killed and many injured at a shooting during the showing of a movie at the in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
If history is any guide, however, the Aurora shootings will do little to change public sentiment regarding gun control, which has been moving away from putting more laws on the books for some time.

A single chart from Gallup puts the movement in public opinion on guns in stark terms.

In 1990, almost eight in ten Americans said that the “laws covering the sales of firearms” should be made “more strict” while just 10 percent said they should be made “less strict” or “kept as they are now”. By 2010, those numbers had drastically shifted with 54 percent preferring less strict or no change in guns laws and 44 percent believing gun laws should be made more strict.

Public opinion has also proven immune to past high profile tragedies involving guns.

In 1999, when Gallup asked the question six times after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, the number of those in favor of stricter laws ranged from 60 to 66 percent. The “less strict” number ranged from 5 to 9 percent and the “stay the same” number ranged from 25 to 31 percent.

The opinions were similar after the shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007. By October of that year, 51 percent favored stricter gun laws, a 5 percent decline from a similar Gallup survey taken in the fall of 2006. (Here’s more on how Virginia Tech didn’t move the needle on gun control.)

And, in the wake of the attempted assassination of Giffords, that pattern played out again — with little obvious change in how people view society’s relationship with guns.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April of this year showed that 49 percent of people said the right to own guns was more important while 45 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership. Those numbers were unchanged from a Pew survey conducted Jan. 13-16, 2011 — just days after Giffords was shot in Tucson.

That the numbers on gun control remain steady even in the aftermath of such high profile events like Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Giffords shooting suggests that people simply don’t equate these incidents of violence with the broader debate over the right role for guns in our society. They view them as entirely separate conversations — and that’s why the tragedy in Aurora isn’t likely to change the political conversation over guns either.

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