Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gun control hard sell in U.S.

Despite massacres, no will to rejig laws

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WASHINGTON -- Controlling access to guns would appear, on its face, the simple answer to preventing public massacres such as the movie-theatre tragedy in Colorado. In the United States, where polls show increasing support for the right to own guns of all kinds and to use them for protection, the argument goes far deeper.

The gunman who killed at least 12 moviegoers at a première of the latest Batman blockbuster and wounded 58 others was armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and at least one pistol. For 10 years, ending in 2004, assault rifles -- a weapon designed for military combat -- were banned from public sale.

That ban, voted into law during the President Bill Clinton administration, is blamed by many Democrats as responsible for the big 1994 Republican victory in Congress, a vote that returned Republicans to control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

True or not, controlling gun access traditionally has been an issue that separates Republicans and Democrats. According to a Pew Research Center poll in April, 72 per cent of Republicans surveyed supported less control on the purchase of weapons. Among Democrats just 27 per cent agreed. Interestingly, 55 per cent of independents sided with Republicans.

The feelings of Democrats on guns remained virtually unchanged from 1993, but had risen sharply -- to 72 per cent from 45 per cent -- among Republicans; to 55 per cent from 38 per cent among independents.

Support for gun control has fallen off dramatically among Republicans and independents despite a series of terrifying mass shootings.

They include the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, not far from the Aurora shooting Saturday. Two senior students carried out the shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher.

Five years ago, a shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech University. Even more recently, in January 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot during a public meeting held in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Ariz. Six people died.

Regardless, gun-control advocates appear powerless in the face of public opinion and the National Rifle Association, the lobby group that has the money and reach to defeat candidates for office who vow to cut access to guns.

Supporters of lax rules on purchasing guns and ammunition cite the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say that guarantees a citizen's right to be armed. U.S. President Barack Obama, who faces an extraordinarily tough race with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, pledged to safeguard the second amendment in the first White House response to the Aurora massacre.

Given the close race for president in November, neither candidate will want to loudly raise gun-control issues. Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor and author of a book on gun politics, said violent crime has been declining in recent years and, "It becomes increasingly difficult to make the argument that we need stricter gun control laws."

FBI statistics show violent crime has fallen nationwide over the past 41/2 years. In addition, Wilson said in some regions, gun control "can be a winning issue for Democrats. But nationally, it's a loser... and they have figured that out." Attempts to emphasize the issue will "really motivate the opposition. And in a political campaign, nobody wants to do that," he said.

At its core, Wilson said, theú issue divides rural voters from urban voters.

In the current election cycle, the National Rifle Association has made 88 per cent of its political donations to Republicans, and 12 per cent to Democrats, says, the website that follows money in politics. The disparity obscures that the organization consistently supports some Democrats, a strategy that allows it to retain influence in both parties. It also reported spending $2.9 million on lobbying last year.


-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2012 A6

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