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Arizona Tragedy Reveals Complexities of American Attitudes Toward Guns

Last weekend’s tragedy in Tucson has stirred up several conversations, including one about the nation’s gun laws.

Some are disturbed that a young man as troubled as accused gunman Jared Loughner appears to be found it easy to buy a handgun and multiple rounds of bullets. As with the gun massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Tucson incident is again raising questions about whether laws should be tightened to lessen the chance that this sort of thing will happen again.

The reaction in political circles over the past few days has been consistent: Most assert the debate over guns is going nowhere — that the pro-gun rights lobby is so powerful, and backed up by public opinion, that there is no point in even discussing whether laws should be re-examined. But it’s worth stepping back a moment to consider how we got to this place.

What exactly is the history of Americans and guns? Almost from the founding of the republic, when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the right to bear arms has been a central tenet of these United States. Influenced by English law, which viewed having arms as a long-established natural right, our forebears in the colonial era made sure no one could take away the weapons that made them safe.

In 2005, around 40 percent of American households owned guns, according to a Gallup poll. That’s the lowest the number has gone since Gallup began asking the question. Gallup also reports that most gun owners say they have more than one gun, and that gun owners are much more likely than non-gun owners to believe having a gun makes them safer.

A new USA Today/Gallup poll also finds that only one in five Americans say that stricter gun control laws in Arizona might have averted the tragedy — 72 percent say tighter controls wouldn’t have prevented it.

As longtime ATF agent James Cavanaugh (who is now retired) told me on the NewsHour Tuesday, gun laws vary from state-to-state.

“In Tennessee here, we have more than 250,000 permitted concealed-carry. And it seems to work well. There’s not any real problems with it. Initially, they had some when they were issued. But it seems to work well,” he said.

And he added: “So we have got to be careful that, on the heels of this horrific and vulgar assassination attempt and murder, that we don’t over correct on gun owners.”

With high-profile gun attacks in our modern history — the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the assassination of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 — public opinion has at times responded by favoring more gun restrictions, as evidenced by the federal Gun Control Act enacted in 1968.

But even with the two attempted shootings of President Gerald Ford in 1975 and the shooting and wounding of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 (four presidents have been assassinated; 12 have been the victim of assassination attempts), with numerous shootings in schools and colleges in recent decades, and countless incidents in between, there remains a baseline of support for gun rights. In fact, it is a baseline that has expanded since the election of President Obama.

Both Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that support for tighter gun control laws stayed in the range of 50 to 60 percent after the multiple shooting deaths at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, but fell off significantly starting in 2009, after President Obama and a majority Democratic Congress came into power.

Conservatives and gun rights advocates began to argue that Americans might be in danger of having their guns taken away from them. This fear was no doubt tied to Mr. Obama’s support for a renewal of the ban on assault weapons, a law supported by Reagan Press Secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head and gravely wounded when President Reagan was attacked. It expired after 10 years, in 2004. Perhaps it was also partly a result of the comment President Obama made at what he thought was a private event during the 2008 campaign, when he referred to working-class voters in areas hit with large job losses. “They get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” then-candidate Obama told a group of supporters.

And there’s also the gun lobby itself, led by the National Rifle Association, which is one of the most successful interest groups ever to come along in Washington.

For all these reasons, the handful of lawmakers suggesting new restrictions on guns or ammunition know they face long odds. U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, says she plans to introduce a bill to ban the type of high-capacity magazine used by Loughner. McCarthy wants instead to go back to a limit of 10 rounds per magazine, something enforced by the Clinton-era assault weapons ban.

But so far neither Republicans, nor, some would say surprisingly, Democrats, are showing a great deal of enthusiasm. Many remember the 54-seat loss that House Democrats suffered in 1994, partly blamed on a backlash against gun control legislation. With a U.S. Supreme Court tilting the other way — ruling distinctly in favor of gun rights in 2008 — it will likely take more than the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the deaths of six others, to move public opinion and political debate in the direction of changing gun control laws.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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