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The gun debate: Are the Newtown, Conn., killings a tipping point?

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The horror in Newtown, Conn., remains fresh, but already a national conversation about what — if anything — politicians should do in the wake of the shootings has begun.

It’s a conversation that we as a country have, sadly, had repeatedly over the past few years. And it’s a conversation governed by a handful of political knowns and unknowns. To understand where the debate over preventing another Newtown might head, it’s worth laying out these knowns and unknowns.

Knowns

●Public sentiment has moved strongly in the past two decades away from the need for stricter gun laws. In 1990, nearly eight in 10 people preferred stricter laws to either the status quo or less-strict laws, according to a Gallup poll. By 2010, just 44 percent wanted stricter laws while a majority (54 percent) wanted less-strict regulations or no change. In an August 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 50 percent of registered voters said they favored stricter gun-control laws while 48 percent opposed them.

●The tendency to view mass shootings such as the one visited on Connecticut last week as isolated incidents caused by a single troubled individual is on the increase. After the killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., this year, two-thirds of people in Pew polling said it was an isolated act committed by a troubled individual, compared with just more than 20 percent who said it was indicative of a broader societal problem. That’s a significant shift from data collected after the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, when roughly equivalent numbers described it as an isolated incident and a broader problem.

●There’s little past evidence that high-profile rampages like the one in Connecticut have any measurable impact on how people feel about gun-control legislation. In an April Pew Research Center poll, 45 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership while 49 percent said the priority should be on protecting gun owners’ rights. A poll in late July, taken less than a week after the shootings in the Colorado theater, showed 47 percent of people putting a priority on gun control while 46 percent said the right to gun ownership should come first. A similar trend — or, more accurately, non-trend — was apparent in Pew data before and after the Virginia Tech shootings and the attempted assassination of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.

●The National Rifle Association is a very powerful and very well-funded lobbying organization that has played a major role in shifting the debate on guns from one focused on putting more laws on the books to one centered on enforcing the current laws. Take the recent presidential campaign as an example. In the second debate, the only one of the three in which the topic came up, Mitt Romney made it clear that “I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal.” President Obama, too, emphasized that “we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got” but did add that he would like to see the ban on assault-style weapons re-introduced in Congress. On Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would do just that and argued for a more “comprehensive strategy.”

Unknowns

●Is Newtown a tipping point? While it’s absolutely true that previous episodes of horrific gun violence have tended not to move the needle on public opinion relating to guns and gun control, the optics of the Connecticut shootings have led some to suggest that a shift is coming. The deaths of 20 children could affect the public consciousness in a way that past incidents have not. (To be clear: The loss of any life in these sorts of tragedies is unspeakable. But the idea of young children gunned down in their school touches people in a way almost nothing else does or could do.) If the public moves, you can be sure politicians will follow.

●How committed is Obama to legislation? In his first remarks on Newtown on Friday, the president signaled that the time had come for “meaningful action.” But what does that mean, and how dedicated is Obama to using his own political power to pressure Congress to do something? In the past, he has been resistant to making much effort on gun-control matters because, as we note above, the public seems uninterested in adding more laws restricting weapons. But Obama never has to run for office again and, at least in theory, is looking as much to cement his place in history as to improve his approval ratings. Finding a way to pass some sort of major gun legislation would fit nicely into that legacy-building. Of course, what Obama wants and what he will do is only part of the equation. Members of the House and many members of the Senate will have to face voters in 2014, and electoral calculation will be a much bigger issue for them. And with a number of red-state Democrats, including Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Max Baucus (Mont.), up for reelection, there could well be significant cross-pressures on them as to how to vote.

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