Giffords shooting unlikely to sway public opinion about gun control

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 7:43 PM

As the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Arizona continue to dominate the national conversation, there is considerable speculation about whether the tragedy will spark a stiffening of federal gun-control measures.

The answer, based on polling and the aftermath of other similar episodes of broad-scale gun violence, is no.

Let's break down the numbers using poll data from Gallup, which has asked this basic gun-control question for the past two years: "In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?"

In October, the most recent time the question was asked, 44 percent of respondents said laws should be more strict, 12 percent said they should be less strict and 42 percent said they should stay about the same.

Although those numbers may appear heartening for gun-control advocates, the trend line in the Gallup data paints a far different picture.

In the fall of 1990, a whopping 78 percent said they favored stricter gun laws, while 2 percent wanted less-strict laws and 17 percent said they preferred that the laws stay the same.

A decade later - in May 2000 - support for stricter restrictions had fallen to 62 percent, with 5 percent opting for less-strict laws and 31 percent wanting no changes.

Interestingly, the Gallup numbers are almost entirely unaffected by incidents of gun violence that draw national attention.

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.

Jim Kessler, a former director of policy and research at Americans for Gun Safety, said that tragic events involving guns inspire action by Congress only when "a high-profile crime has a direct nexus to a flaw in our gun laws."

He noted that in response to Columbine, Congress tried - unsuccessfully - to close the loophole on firearm purchases at gun shows, but that after Virginia Tech, legislation was passed that forced states to supply information to background-check databases for people who had been judged mentally ill.

In the Arizona incident, however, Jared Lee Loughner, the suspected shooter, legally purchased a gun in late November in Tucson. "If there is no direct nexus to a loophole, a legislative push becomes more diffuse and more difficult," Kessler said.

Another factor to consider in weighing the likelihood of a major change - or even a minor one - in gun laws is the legislative power of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA has one of the most sophisticated lobbying and grass-roots political operations in the country, closely monitoring and fighting any attempts to restrict gun rights. That vigilance has largely kept gun-control legislation at bay in recent years.

The X-factor in all of these calculations is whether an attack on one of their own changes the way members of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - feel about gun control.

(Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat and longtime gun-control advocate, said Sunday that she plans to introduce legislation to further address the issue.)

But, given the declining support for more gun laws over the past two decades and the apparent disconnect between tragedy and public opinion on the issue, it's hard to imagine any significant legislative action to restrict rights.

"Most law-abiding people will not see restrictions of their rights as the solution," Republican pollster John McLaughlin said. "However, they will want their security increased. That's the real challenge."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company