Despite Obama's appeal for action, new gun control unlikely, experts say
December 15, 2012 5:15 AM
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
Supporters of stricter gun control legislation gather on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House on Friday at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
By Mark Roth Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Twenty children dead, age 10 and younger. A shocked nation. An emotional President Barack Obama, who said amid tears, "As a country, we have been through this too many times. ... We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
Will all of those factors make Friday's Newtown, Conn., tragedy the tipping point for new gun control laws?
Probably not, said a range of experts, including those who personally would like to see that.
Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he not only does not think additional gun control measures would be very effective in preventing shootings like Friday's, but believes they are politically unlikely.
The Obama administration "may see the Connecticut shooting as an opportunity to move something forward," he wrote in an email, "but the chances of any strict gun controls passing the [Republican-controlled] House are exceedingly small.
"Moreover, the Supreme Court rulings regarding the Second Amendment may open any serious gun controls to legal challenges.
"So as truly tragic and sickening as the Connecticut events are, it's unlikely any serious legislation will pass," he said.
While that might be the expected reaction from a conservative think tank staff member, it was shared by State University of New York professor Robert Spitzer, author of the book, "The Politics of Gun Control."
While "I think this should be a moment to examine the issue of gun control squarely," Mr. Spitzer said, he has little hope that will happen in the near future. "The National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have a headlock on the Republican Party," he said, "and have been very successful in helping to silence the debate about gun policy in this country."
On top of that, Supreme Court rulings declaring that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of individual gun ownership not only have set a very high obstacle to any further gun limits, but have helped reshape American attitudes on the subject.
Since 1990, Gallup polls have shown the percentage of Americans favoring stricter gun control laws has fallen from 78 percent to 44 percent in 2010.
The rulings, Mr. Spitzer believes, have left many Americans feeling that "people have a right to have guns, and while we may think shootings are terrible, there's really nothing we can do."
Although the president said Friday that it is time to do something, neither he nor Republican candidate Mitt Romney spent much time talking about gun issues during the presidential campaign, the professor added.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed in the Columbine school shootings in Colorado in 1999, said he believes stronger gun control laws are needed, but "I think we tend to do nothing on this issue in this country. There may be a push to do something right now, but then I think it will tend toward 'Lets look at what was mentally wrong with this person,' and we will never look at the bigger picture."
What is that picture, in his mind?
"To me the bigger picture is we can't solve all of those mental health issues," said Mr. Mauser, who grew up in Finleyville. "We're not set up to do that. So, when do we deal with the easy access to guns and providing weapons that enable people to mow lots of other people down?"
Daniel Nagin, a criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said he hopes the Newtown killings will spur some action, but he acknowledged that "by and large, the [research] literature finds that these efforts to control weapons are not particularly effective."
While many liberals like to point to the much lower mass shooting rates in tough gun control nations like the United Kingdom and Canada, he said, others can point to countries like Switzerland and Israel, where gun ownership rates equal those in America, but mass shootings are rare.
Mr. Nagin said he thinks there is no real argument against restoring the federal ban on the sale of assault weapons. "They're not weapons that hunters use. I can't understand the rationale for not restricting these."
As to the argument some gun ownership advocates make that banning assault weapons would be the first step toward more severe gun limits, Mr. Nagin said that doesn't hold true in other areas of civic life.
"Think of all the other things we regulate like alcohol or the way we drive or access to different drugs, and people don't perceive this as a slippery slope toward not allowing people to drive at all, or not allowing people to drink alcohol."
But Mr. Briggs of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the previous assault weapon prohibition specified that banned weapons would need to meet two of several criteria, including a pistol grip, a folding stock, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or a grenade launcher, and it is possible today to buy an assault rifle with just a pistol stock.
"So renewing the assault weapons ban would do absolutely nothing to prevent shootings like the one in Connecticut," he said.
In the Connecticut shootings, police said the suspect carried two semi-automatic handguns into the school, but left an assault rifle in the car he drove there.
The shooter, identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had already killed his mother at their home before driving to the school and opening fire, and then killing himself.
Eric Hickey, dean of the College of Forensic Sciences at Alliant International University in Fresno, Calif., said that he doesn't think gun control laws are the answer to events like Friday's tragedy.
"Every time there is a major mass murder, the knee jerk response is to do something about gun control," Mr. Hickey said. "I think this shooting will raise some debate, but I don't think it will go anywhere, because gun ownership is sacred with much of America."
He said the focus should be more on dealing with troubled families. The Friday shootings "were really about the mother and conflicts in the family, and the children were collateral damage from that."
While little gun control action may occur immediately, in the long run, tougher laws are probably inevitable, Mr. Spitzer said.
Firearm ownership in the United States is nearing historic lows, he said.
"There has been a gradual decline in gun ownership over the last 50 years," he said, "because most people who get guns own them for sporting reasons and fewer people are doing that, fewer are handing that down from fathers to sons, and more people are living in areas with no hunting."
All of those trends eventually will erode the gun ownership constituency, he concluded.