In the states, however, the debate over gun control is as robust as ever. In a number of major cities, rising crime rates have pushed the issue to the front of the public agenda. Gun control advocates, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have been pushing for laws that would help target illegal gun trafficking: allowing states access to gun-trace data, requiring background checks at gun shows, and forcing gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons. "We have more than 250 million guns in this country, and not all of those guns are in the hands of rational people," says Jim Sollo, vice president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety, a gun control advocacy group.
NRA power. But supporters of gun control say that the strength of the National Rifle Association in many states makes it nearly impossible to even discuss laws targeting illegal guns. The powerful group has about 4 million members nationwide, a $20 million to $30 million lobbying budget, and a strong youth group raising a new generation of members. In particular, NRA foes point to the group's successful efforts to gain passage of state "pre-emption" laws that limit local power over gun laws. It has played a role in state and federal elections, for instance, joining the broader Republican-led upset of South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat, after he supported gun control amendments to the manufacturers' liability legislation.
Not surprisingly, moderate and Democratic states, where the NRA is less influential, have voted for the greatest number of gun control laws. California, for instance, passed a law last year requiring that manufacturers stamp every firearm with a unique imprint so ammunition fired from it can be traced. (Opponents argue that releasing this sensitive information would harm investigations.) And in January, New Jersey legislators passed laws calling for owners to report lost or stolen guns, requiring criminal and mental health background checks for ammunition purchases, and increasing penalties for illegal gun possession and trafficking.
The fault lines in the gun debate aren't entirely partisan; they often mark divisions between rural areas, where hunting is deeply embedded in the culture, and urban communities, where guns are linked with drugs and crime. These cultural differences affect constituents' views: City dwellers tend to want more gun control than rural people do. And in rural districts, even Democrats often support the NRA.
For instance, the NRA is pushing for laws to prohibit private businesses from barring employees from keeping guns in their cars in a company parking lot. A measure to that effect introduced in Georgia, although it has stalled, won support from a number of Democrats, particularly those from rural areas. In Arizona, state Republican Rep. Jonathan Paton introduced such legislation after hearing from a constituent who drove an hour each day through a dangerous border area to work. "There's a lot of rural no man's land between where some people work and where they live," he says. "This is about people's right and whether they feel safe or not."
Part of the challenge in going after guns used in crimes is the lack of solid research on exactly which laws help reduce gun violence. Researchers agree that where there are more guns, there are more likely to be accidents with guns. But beyond that, a 2003 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, there is "insufficient evidence" to measure the efficacy of various gun control laws, largely because of limited data.
For instance, laws requiring owners to protect children by keeping their guns locked or unloaded reduced deaths among children in Florida, research shows, but not in California or Connecticut. Laws allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons, which advocates say tend to discourage criminals from shooting, have brought little meaningful decrease in crime. And the research is mixed on whether mandatory waiting periods reduce the likelihood of suicides by impulsive gun buyers.