Gun control's prospects after Tucson

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Friday, January 14, 2011; 8:46 PM

What are the prospects for gun control? Below are responses from Scott Keeter, Paul Helmke, Thomas M. Davis III, Dan Schnur, Doughlas E. Schoen, Carolyn McCarthy and John Ensign.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

The public opinion climate for more regulation of guns is significantly chillier today than it was two or three decades ago. In 1990, 78 percent of the public told a Gallup poll that they felt that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made stricter; in October of last year, just 44 percent said this. A sizable shift in public sentiment has taken place in just the past two years. The percentage of the public saying it's more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of Americans to own guns dropped from 58 percent in April 2008 to just 50 percent in a September 2010 Pew Research Center poll. There is a very large partisan divide on the issue, with 70 percent of Republicans but only 30 percent of Democrats saying it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership.

Incidents similar to the Arizona shootings, such as the murders at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007, had no lasting impact on public attitudes about the issue. And even in years when there was more public support for gun control than there is now, legislative action on the issue often responded more to opponents of gun control. One reason may be that relatively few elected officials, especially in recent years, have spoken out strongly in favor of gun control, leaving the issue to be defined mostly by opponents.

PAUL HELMKE

President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Too many assume that Congress - once again - will respond to a major mass shooting by doing nothing. But I believe the tragedy of Tucson will lead to change.

When gun violence becomes personal - for example, for Ronald and Nancy Reagan and many of their supporters after the 1981 assassination attempt - people adjust their thinking. Because last weekend's target was a member of Congress, debates about protecting politicians and the American people cannot be avoided.

This shooting also highlighted, again, our weak gun laws. Those laws made it legal for the gunman to buy military-style ammunition magazines holding 30 rounds; to buy the gun capable of firing those bullets; and to carry that loaded gun without a permit. Not until the gunman fired at Gabrielle Giffords did he break any law.

This shooting shows also that sensible laws can reduce gun violence. The toll from Tucson would been have minimized had Congress not let the ban on high-capacity clips expire in 2004.

Consider that in space flight, our response to a tragedy - the Challenger explosion, for example - includes presidential commissions and congressional hearings. A commission and congressional hearings to prevent gun violence are necessary now.

THOMAS M. DAVIS III

Former U.S. representative from Virginia; president of the Republican Main Street Partnership

Additional gun control measures are dead in this Congress. In fact, gun rights advocates made impressive gains in the previous Congress. You can now carry a gun in our national parks with a concealed-carry permit. You couldn't do that under President George W. Bush (who also favored extension of the assault-weapons ban). But a Democratic Congress and President Obama made it law.

The Democratic Congress wouldn't even allow a vote on closing the gun-show loophole, although it did hold D.C. voting rights hostage to an effort to repeal the city's gun-control laws.

The NRA reciprocated the courtesy by endorsing dozens of vulnerable rural Democrats for reelection. (Many of them lost anyway, discovering that voters found the economy a far more important issue.)

The NRA has long been a staple of the Republican coalition in Congress, and it now has strong tentacles gripping rural members of both parties. With the GOP controlling the House and gun rights advocate Harry Reid leading Senate Democrats, additional gun legislation is a non-starter.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

President Obama was wise enough to frame his remarks in Arizona in the personal rather than the political. He knew that most Americans were grieving for reasons that had nothing to do with public policy, so he steered clear of any explicit discussion of deficit reduction or education reform, and he avoided any mention of guns. By talking in broader terms about civility and conciliation, however, the president did lay the groundwork for further cooperation with congressional Republicans in the months ahead. But that cooperation is most likely to occur on matters on which there is some ideological overlap, like trade or immigration or energy. Gun control and ownership did not fit in that category before last weekend's events. They are just as unlikely to provide consensus today.

Similar presidential addresses, whether Ronald Reagan's tribute to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle or Bill Clinton's memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, did not directly alter the trajectory of public policy debate. But they provided an expanded window of opportunity for those presidents to talk to - and renew their relationship with - the American people. Obama recognized that his expanded window is best used to set the stage for progress on issues that he has already chosen to prioritize, rather than as a reason to begin a conversation on guns that has never appeared to hold much interest for him.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

I wish I could say that the results of the shootings outside Tucson will be meaningful gun control legislation, but I cannot.

The high-capacity magazine of the semiautomatic pistol the shooter used was illegal to make and hard to buy under the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. But other than a few Democrats, there has been no drumbeat to support new gun regulation, such as legislation that would ban the high-capacity magazines that permitted the gunman to shoot so many bullets so fast.

Moreover, while the Democrats have not exactly been vocal, the Republicans have been conspicuous by their silence. Republicans traditionally oppose gun control legislation, largely because of the influence of the National Rifle Association, and the few Democrats left in swing states and swing districts are fearful of a powerful NRA. The NRA, for its part, has been eerily quiet since the shooting, aside from a single posting on its Web site that expressed sympathies for the victims.

To go beyond the bipartisanship of President Obama's moving speech at the University of Arizona, we must engage in the national dialogue and debate on gun control. Sadly, I doubt this will happen, and I am almost certain any discussion will not lead to new legislation anytime soon - a tragedy in itself.

CAROLYN MCCARTHY

Democratic representative from New York

As the initial shock of last weekend's horrific shooting spree subsides, I'm getting asked a lot about the prospects of my legislation to restrict access to high-capacity magazines like those used in Arizona.

I am driven every day by the knowledge that I have a few powerful forces on my side: historical precedent, common sense and colleagues in Congress who understand the tragic consequences that can result from excessively lethal weaponry in the wrong hands.

High-capacity magazines like those used to injure my colleague Gabrielle Giffords aren't needed for target shooting or hunting. They are used to kill or injure as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.

In 1994, before I was elected to office, I worked with advocates and members of Congress from both parties to pass comprehensive legislation restricting access to the most lethal kinds of hardware, including the high-capacity magazines I hope to outlaw with legislation I am introducing this week. My current proposal is just one small part of the prior assault-weapons ban, which was the law of the land until 2004. We came together as a nation for this common-sense measure before, and with no other issues being addressed by the legislation, we can come together again to support it now.

JOHN ENSIGN

Republican senator from Nevada

The recent shootings in Arizona were a national tragedy and the acts of a lone gunman. Allegations have been made that they were the result of lax gun laws and heightened political rhetoric. Neither is the case.

Unfortunately, there will be knee-jerk reactions from lawmakers in Washington to make gun laws even more oppressive. Let me be very clear: Gun laws were not the reason that a socially isolated individual, an anarchist, chose to open fire on an elected official, her constituents and a federal judge. And changing the gun laws will not prevent such a tragedy in the future. Consider an example that may help change the dialogue on this issue.

The District of Columbia is home to the nation's most restrictive gun control measures. Logic would suggest that this city must be the safest place in the country. But the facts do not support this conclusion. Gun violence in the District was consistently among the highest in the nation throughout the 30 years that the city banned handguns.

A criminal or a madman such as the Tucson shooter will use other means to purchase handguns; in Washington, criminals used illegal guns purchased on the black market. Regarding the D.C. law, the Fraternal Order of Police stated that the handgun ban was a "miserable failure by any estimation." I certainly hope that Congress will not feel motivated to create more miserable failures across the country with tougher gun laws.


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