It took only a few hours after the mass killing in a Colorado theater last Friday for gun-control advocates to blame the event on “an out-of-control, militarized gun industry” and to support unspecified new curbs on firearms.
The problem gun critics face is that they increasingly lack political support from either major political party–or from public-opinion surveys–for any significant new government action to restrict public access to guns.
It’s easy to blame the politically potent National Rifle Association (NRA) for the demise of new gun control initiatives. But even a single-issue organization like the NRA must enjoy a large amount of grass-roots support to succeed.
Such backing can be seen in public-opinion polling over a long period. The most dramatic gun-control action that could be taken in the U.S. would be a ban on handgun possession for everyone except law enforcement personnel, but such an move got a record-low 26 percent support in a Gallup survey taken last year.
Some 60 percent were in favor of such a ban back in 1959, before crime became a major national problem in the last four decades of the twentieth century.
Gallup found public support for a variety of gun-control measures at historical lows.
The survey reported higher opposition to a ban on semiautomatic guns or assault rifles, 53 percent to 43 percent. When the same question was asked in 1996 after Congress enacted a ban on assault-style weapons, the findings were nearly reversed, with 57 percent for and 42 percent against an assault rifle ban.
The ban expired in 2004, when polls showed a nearly even national division on the issue.
Support in the Gallup survey for the somewhat vague concept of making gun laws “more strict” was at its modern lowest at 43 percent. Forty-four percent preferred to keep gun laws as they are now, while 11 percent favored less strict laws. As recently as 2007, a majority favored stricter laws, which had been the majority view since Gallup first asked about it in 1990.
Public opinion on guns clearly has shifted, but why?
Like many issues surrounding crime, there is no single answer. Compared with many other issues in which a growing body of science proves or undermines a variety of anti-crime measures, there is relatively little such evidence on the broad effectiveness of gun-control measures.
At the same time, there is a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes illustrating the use of guns in self-defense. Gun sales have boomed since President Obama took office, both because buyers erroneously fear more gun control moves in Washington and because they want firearms to protect themselves.
Just since last Friday’s theater shooting, background checks for people wanting to buy guns in Colorado leapt more than 41 percent, the Denver Post reports. A gun shore owner said that this past Monday was probably the busiest Monday for sales all year, and that firearms classes were uncharacteristically booked solid for the next three weeks.
President Barack Obama, having observed other Democrats suffer election losses on the gun issue, has declined to address further restrictions. Neither has Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who favored an assault-weapon ban as Massachusetts governor. It hasn’t helped Obama that his Attorney General, Eric Holder, has been held in contempt by the House for his handling of the Fast and Furious gun investigation in Arizona.
Even if Holder has done little wrong in what is clearly a partisan effort, the House action signals that Republicans won’t yield on anything that could be described as gun control.
The known facts of the Colorado case don’t lend themselves to anti-gun policymaking.
The evidence in several past mass killings suggested that stronger action to prevent mentally ill persons from obtaining firearms would be in order.
So far, however, accused theater killer James Holmes does not appear to have exhibited any mental problems that should have blocked his efforts to buy guns and ammunition.
Of course, the Colorado killings raise many questions, such as why a student needs to stockpile 6,000 rounds of ammunition, as Holmes apparently did. While enforcement of gun laws already on the books can be improved, and efforts should be made to improve criminal records databases that help prevent unauthorized people from buying firearms, as shocking as the Aurora massacre was, it doesn’t seem likely to produce new gun controls.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.