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Why has public support for gun control decreased?

Two years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- and for the first time in more than 20 years -- a majority of Americans support gun rights over gun control. Judy Woodruff talks to Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center and Joseph de Avila of The Wall Street Journal about shifting U.S. opinions on guns and safety.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: the change in public attitudes and state laws when it comes to gun rights and restrictions.

    It's long been one of the most divisive issues in America. And now several families who lost loved ones in Newtown Connecticut are suing the gunmaker. The lawsuit was filed a day after the second anniversary of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman, Adam Lanza, had already killed his mother, and ultimately shot himself to death as well.

    Now families of 10 of the victims are suing the manufacturer, distributor and seller of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Lanza used. The suit alleges negligence and wrongful death, and argues that the rifle shouldn't have been available to civilians because it's a military weapon.

    Nicole Hockley's six-year-old son, Dylan, died in the Sandy Hook shooting. She's now one of the plaintiffs, and spoke to PBS NewsHour Weekend.

    NICOLE HOCKLEY, Mother of Newtown Victim: Dylan was shot five times. So if we had a 10-magazine, 10-bullet limit, you know, instead of a 30, for all I know, Dylan could be alive today.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    After Newtown, the state of Connecticut did adopt some of the most restrictive gun policies in the nation. They include a ban on large-capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds, background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases, and a prohibition on scores of assault-style weapons.

    Overall, a San Francisco group, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says 37 states have passed nearly a hundred new gun laws since 2012. And some 200 lawmakers from all 50 states have formed an alliance against gun violence.

    But gun rights advocates, including Connecticut State Representative Rob Sampson, argue that even limiting magazine capacity will not prevent tragedies like Newtown.

    ROB SAMPSON (R), Connecticut State Representative: You can change a magazine in literally one second. If I was to shoot you and say, I'm about to shoot you, and I have to change magazines first, boom, I'm done, you would never get to me in time. You wouldn't even try.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That sort of opposition has blocked congressional action on new gun legislation. And the president's nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has been caught up in the debate for arguing gun violence is a serious public health issue.

    For more on all this, we turn to Carroll Doherty. He's director of political research at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. And Joseph de Avila, who has been reporting on this and related stories for The Wall Street Journal.

    And we welcome both of you.

    Joe de Avila, why are these families suing?

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA, The Wall Street Journal:

    Well, they're suing. They sued over this — the past weekend.

    And what they're trying to do is basically a lot of them are asking for their day in court. What has happened is that there was a law passed in 2005 that basically has not allowed any lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

    There is one exception. There is — one of these exceptions is negligent entrustment. So what essentially they're arguing is that these — lawsuit, in order for it to go forward, they're saying that the manufacturer of the gun and the distributor and also the store that sold this gun are basically selling a weapon that is unfit for civilian use.

    And negligent entrustment, to give you an example, it kind of works in a way where one party gives a product to another party and trusts that product with that additional party. And if that other party commits harm to a third party, that is basically what happens under negligent entrustment.

    So this is — this act is essentially saying this is what happened here. And basically they would want to have their day in court because they feel that this weapon, this AR-15, is not fit for civilians to use.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And their lawyers are arguing they — they think they have a good case?

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA:

    They think they have a good case.

    It really hasn't been tested at this level before, so it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out. It's really going to be up to a judge to determine whether a manufacturer putting a gun into the marketplace to be purchased by the general public, whether that is included in negligent entrustment. And that's going to have to be determined by a judge.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Carroll Doherty, you have been look at what has happened to public opinion on guns.

    CARROLL DOHERTY, Director of Political Research, Pew Research Center: Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What have you seen since Newtown?

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Well, you saw a rise in support for gun control in the immediate weeks after Newtown. And some of that has been reversed.

    And, actually, for the first time in our polling on this broad measure of support for gun control vs. gun rights, for the first time, you see significantly more, 52 percent favoring gun rights, than gun control, 46 percent.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Are you able to drill down a little deeper and determine why that is?

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Well, deep partisan gaps remain.

    But one of the interesting things is the regional shift. In the Northeast, there is still strong support and unwavering support for gun control. In the South and the Midwest in particular, its support has dropped.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But is it — is it — I mean, it's counterintuitive, in a way…

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    … because one thinks, after Newtown, after the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, other highly publicized school shootings, despite all that?

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Right.

    Well, you still see support for individual measures, these specific measures like background — tougher background checks, things like that, large support. This is the overall climate, though, and it's quite a bit different than it was in the 1990s, when — almost 2-1 support for gun control after, say, the Columbine shooting.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You know, Joe de Avila, we — we mentioned a little while ago that the state of Connecticut passed some new restrictive gun laws.

    What has happened in other states, though, in the two years since the shooting there at the school?

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA:

    Well, there's been quite a few other states that have also strengthened their gun laws. Some 37 states have done something to improve the gun laws and some of the restrictions in those states.

    So, Connecticut is one example. They passed universal background checks. They expanded their ban on what they call an assault rifle. They have also banned the sale of large-capacity magazines. New York state did some similar measures, as well as Colorado.

    And you see in other states, Alabama, for example, where some of the gun laws are — have been loosened there. In Alabama, they have made it easier to get a concealed-carry permit. And in Georgia, for example, there, you are now able to take a gun into a bar or into a church or into a school.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what about the role of organizations like the National Rifle Association, the NRA, other of these national gun rights groups? What role have they played in seeing these laws get changed?

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA:

    Well, they have been lobbying for laws such as the ones where — in some of these states where they have loosened some of the regulations. They have definitely been in favor of those types of measures to make it easier for some people to either own a weapon or in some of the areas where they can carry a weapon.

    And certainly in some of these states that have passed stricter gun laws, they have definitely been out there lobbying against these specific measures.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Carroll Doherty, when you talk to folks about why they have different views on guns and whether the laws should be stricter or looser, do they give reasons of why their views are changing? What do they say?

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Well, I mean, when we asked about the Senate bill, the failed Senate bill last year — or I guess in 2013 — and we asked people who — you know, their reactions afterward, you know, some people who said that they supported background checks generally were a little wary of legislation.

    They are worried about big government, worried about slippery slope to further control, things like that. I mean, even the objectives that get support in principle, there is a concern about new national legislation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Joe de Avila, the — we see most of the attention, though, is on the states. It's moved away from Congress.

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA:

    Right, because they haven't had any luck at the federal level.

    And that's one of the things that some of the families have mentioned why they wanted to bring this lawsuit in Connecticut, some of the Sandy Hook families, because they have had no success at the federal level, so they thought they would try it in the courts.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All right, we are going to leave it there.

    Joseph de Avila of The Wall Street Journal and Carroll Doherty the Pew Research Center, we thank you.

  • CARROLL DOHERTY:

    Thank you.

  • JOSEPH DE AVILA:

    Thank you.

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