NEWS

Gun control losing support in U.S.

07/23/2012 11:15 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT
In the wake of the Colorado shooting, celebrities who tweeted about the need for tighter gun controls in the U.S. seem to be out of step with the majority of Americans who are more concerned with protecting their right to own guns, a trend that may be traced back to President Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency in 2009.

James Holmes is in police custody for the shooting rampage in Colorado at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises that killed at least 12 people and injured 59 others last Friday.

Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on the sitcom Seinfeld, was among the celebrities tweeting about the need for stronger gun laws in the U.S. particularly for semi-automatic and automatic weapons. With the debate now raging, he posted a longer version of his argument on TwitLonger.

"These weapons are military weapons. They belong in accountable hands, controlled hands and trained hands. They should not be in the hands of private citizens to be used against police, neighborhood intruders or people who don't agree with you. These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. They are not the same as handguns to help homeowners protect themselves from intruders. They are not the same as hunting rifles or sporting rifles. These weapons are designed for harm and death on big scales," he wrote.

"We will not prevent every tragedy. We cannot stop every maniac. But we certainly have done ourselves no good by allowing these particular weapons to be acquired freely by just about anyone."

Salman Rushdie on the right to bear arms

Author Salman Rushdie, who has 345,558 followers on Twitter, also jumped into the fray by tweeting, "The ‘right to bear arms’ is the real Bane of America."

Rushdie, who wrote Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, remained active on the issue, replying and retweeting a dozen of his followers' comments.

He also tweeted a reference to his comments after the 1999 Columbine school shootings: "After Columbine I was on Bill Maher’s old show arguing vs NRA’s Ted Nugent about gun control. Lots of Nugents on my timeline today."

Indeed, polls shows that support for stricter gun control has steadily declined in the U.S. over the last two decades.

A 1991 Gallup poll found that 78 per cent of Americans favoured stricter laws on the sale of firearms, 17 per cent wanted the laws kept the same, and just two per cent saying they should be less strict.

By 2011 the numbers had steadily shifted. While the number saying they wanted stricter gun control had fallen to 43 per cent, 44 per cent favoured the status quo and 11 per cent wanted less strict gun control.

That Gallup poll also found that 45 per cent of Americans say they have a gun in their home.

Drop in support for gun control after Obama becomes president

Polls done by the Pew Research Centre also found a similar shift in attitudes over gun control. From 1993 through 2008, majority public opinion consistently landed in favour of gun control

"We polled in April 2008 and a significant majority said the priority should be controlling gun ownership rather than protecting the right to own guns. By April 2009 it was about 50-50," said Carroll Dougherty, associate director of research at Pew.

In a Pew poll done in April of this year, 49 per cent of Americans said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 45 per cent said it was more important to control gun ownership.

The shift coincides with President Barack Obama taking office, observes Dougherty.

"There was a reaction to Obama’s presidency. There was a growing concern at that time that there would be new restrictions on gun ownership coming down and it had the effect of raising the profile of this issue and mobilizing support for gun rights."

Pew has done six polls on the issue after April 2009. "What’s interesting is it has not moved in either direction since then. It’s been very stable," said Dougherty.

A partisan issue

Moreover, it’s long been a partisan issue but it’s even more partisan than ever today, he added.

"Most of the change has come from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. In 2007 half of Republicans supported gun rights. Now it’s 72 per cent. Change among democrats is very modest" but in the same direction.

And if past polls are any indication, the recent massacre in Colorado is not likely to have much impact on public opinion of gun control.

Pew did polls after two high-profile shootings: the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, with 32 killed and 17 wounded, as well as the rampage in Arizona on January 8, 2011 that killed six people and injured 19 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"We have asked this question about gun rights in the wake of high profile shootings. There has not been a major shift in opinion after those events," said Dougherty.

Mass shootings 'isolated acts?'

In the polls, people were also asked, "Do you think this shooting reflects broader problems in American society, or are things like this just the isolated acts of troubled individuals?"

In 2007, 47 per cent said they were isolated acts while 46 per cent said they reflected broader problems in society, such as a breakdown in social values, which was singled out by 37 per cent of respondents.

After the Arizona shootings in 2011, 58 per cent were saying they were isolated acts and 31 per cent said they reflected broader problems in society. like the social or political climate or the lack of mental health services.

Only 14 per cent in 2007 and 13 per cent in 2011 blamed lax gun laws, saying it was too easy to get guns.

While conservatives tended to view the events as isolated incidents, in 2007 liberals tended to see them as part of broader social problems.

"These attitudes are becoming more fixed over time, though it’s difficult to say why," said Dougherty.

Gun control and the shooters' motive

The debate about gun control may be masking the real underlying issues in these high-profile mass shootings, says Scot Wortley, a professor of criminology and socio-legal studies at the University of Toronto.

"I really cannot explain the American public’s love affair with guns. We’re often not talking about individuals having handguns for protection. The debate has gotten down to whether or not people should be able to have high-powered rifles or weapons that are primarily designed for wartime."

Even in countries with good gun control, mass shootings take place, he adds, pointing to the Norway massacre last summer that killed 77 people and wounded 319 in two separate attacks.

"Norway probably has gun control laws that are as tough, if not tougher, than we have in Canada," Wortley said.

"Beyond the guns themselves, we have to look at what actually motivates someone like [James] Holmes to engage in these acts. Guns make it easier for him to engage in mass homicide than a bat or knife would, but I’m sure his motivation goes much deeper than issues of gun control."

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