The scenario is all too familiar: A disturbed gunman opens fire in a school, an office, or a shopping center and, before horrified spectators, slaughters innocent men, women, and even children. After the massacres at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, and Omaha's Westroads Mall, the question is always the same: How could this tragedy have been prevented? Inevitably, there are calls for tougher gun control, and routinely they are followed by arguments about Second Amendment rights, along with protestations that "guns don't kill people; people do." In the end, the reactions to these tragedies serve only to remind how deeply divided Americans are when it comes to guns.
Four out of every 10 Americans own a gun. And nearly 3 out of 4 believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to have a firearm. Recent Gallup polls show that only 38 percent of Americans think the most important way to combat gun violence is through stricter gun laws; 58 percent believe more should be done to enforce current laws instead. And more than two thirds oppose an outright ban on handguns.
Lost momentum. Perhaps that's why, despite the steady toll of gunshot violence, it's been nearly 15 years since there has been a significant push for gun legislation on the federal level. Back in 1993, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Brady bill, which imposed background checks on gun buyers, and the following year, Congress banned private ownership of assault weapons. But the momentum didn't last. Months later, Republicans took over Congress, and in 1996, the House voted to repeal the assault weapons ban. Although the Senate failed to follow suit at the time, in 2004 Congress let the ban expire.
The Democrats learned the perils of reviving the gun control issue during the 2000 presidential campaign when candidate Al Gore pledged to limit handgun sales, crack down on gun shows, and support state registration of firearms. It was a liberal position that some think cost him the vote in a few southern, pro-gun states, including his home state of Tennessee. For many Democrats, the lesson was clear: Gun control was a losing—and consuming—issue. "You can talk about guns, or you can talk about everything else," says Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant. "If you start talking about guns, everyone bridles, be it pro-gun or antigun. You'll never make it to healthcare. You'll never make it to the economy."
That attitude has carried the day as Democrats have tried to pick up more seats in pro-gun states like Missouri and in the Southwest. Many of the Democratic victories in 2006 came from conservative candidates like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a gun-owning former marine whose senior aide was arrested last year for accidentally carrying Webb's gun into a Senate office building.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has talked much about gun control. Both Democratic candidates have endorsed the idea of tracking down illegal guns, but both have dropped their onetime support for licensing gun owners and registering new guns. At their Nevada debate in January, Clinton said she would reinstate the assault weapons ban. And Obama vowed to increase access to data that help trace the origin of guns used in crimes. But he acknowledged the gun control divide when he said: "We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country.... We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets." Republican candidate John McCain has long endorsed an individual right to have guns.
Under Republican leadership, Congress did little to toughen gun control laws, and what Congress has done since then has largely been to relax laws. In 2003, for instance, it passed an amendment to block the government from publicly releasing most data that trace guns used in crimes. And in 2005, Congress gave gun manufacturers immunity to lawsuits if their firearms were used in crimes. The only significant federal gun control legislation, which increased funding for mental health background checks, was passed in December, under Democratic leadership and in the emotional wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. Other than that, says Andy Goddard, whose son was injured in the shooting, "people don't know how poorly protected they are."
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.
The effect of bans. The District of Columbia gun ban now before the Supreme Court has been at the center of contrasting research. A 1991 study found an almost 25 percent decline in homicides and a 23 percent drop in suicides by firearms following the ban and no similar drop in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, which don't have bans. But a study published five years later argued that the assessment wasn't valid because it compared D.C. with prosperous suburbs rather than with another city, such as Baltimore, where homicides also declined during the same period.
On the streets of D.C.'s rougher neighborhoods today, it's hard to see how the handgun ban has made much of an impact on crime. Last year, homicides—about 80 percent of which are caused by firearms—were up 7 percent from the year before, to 181. That makes D.C.'s one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. If the gun ban is struck down, the District will very likely see an increase in firearms ownership and perhaps a rise in burglaries by criminals trying to obtain guns.
But a new police unit formed to target illegal guns may be doing more for public safety than a ban alone. Every day about two dozen officers fan out across the city's roughest neighborhoods, stopping drivers and pedestrians for traffic and other offenses and executing warrants in search of illegal guns. Some days the officers come up dry. But in the first three months of the program, they seized nearly 120 guns, increasing the city's average monthly recovery by about 35 percent from the previous year. The city would have a program without a ban, and judging from those in possession of the guns, the program would most likely work just as well. Says police officer James Boteler Jr.: "Most of the guns we're recovering are from people who, even without the ban, would not be allowed to have one anyway." But, he adds, the ban doesn't hurt, either.