ATLANTA — Congress is preparing three new gun control laws in the wake of the shooting deaths Saturday of six people and wounding of 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Ariz. But some Americans are drawing a different conclusion from the attack: Only more guns in more hands can reduce gun violence.
US lawmakers immediately began reviewing their personal security details in the wake of the shooting, even debating whether to install bulletproof glass to separate lawmakers from the publicly accessible Capitol gallery. At least two congressmen – Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah and Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina, both licensed gun carriers from staunchly pro-gun parts of their states – announced they’d be carrying weapons during upcoming public events in their districts.
And even as Arizonans held an emotional national memorial meeting with President Obama on Wednesday night for the victims of the worst act of gun violence since the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, the Arizona Legislature didn’t hesitate this week to introduce a bill that would allow college students to carry weapons on campus.
“Arizona’s response [to the shooting] – the most likely legislative response – is going to be expanded gun rights,” writes Slate’s David Weigel, noting that gun rights remains a top priority for a fresh batch of tea party conservatives elected to the Republican-led legislature in November.
In a country that, on the national level, hasn’t passed a major gun-control law since the assault-weapons ban in 1993, gun rights have been steadily expanding by judicial decree as well as state and national law. In 2009, President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to reinstate the assault-weapons ban, signed laws allowing gun owners to carry their weapons in national parks and on Amtrak trains.
Politicians are likely taking cues from the public. A Gallup poll in October found that 44 percent of Americans believe firearm sale regulations should be stricter, a record low response to that question. A USA Today poll taken after the Arizona shooting showed that only 1 in 5 respondents believe stricter gun control laws would have prevented the shooting.
The Arizona Legislature’s consideration this week of a proposed campus-carry gun law despite the Tucson tragedy illustrates how attitudes toward guns have changed since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which sparked a slew of state anti-gun measures, including in Kentucky and California.
“What we’ve seen is a maturing of the American public in its sophistication on the gun issue, and I think we’re now seeing a growth toward a more realistic attitude, which is to think about these incidents on a case-by-case basis and whether this shows us anything that could be done better,” says Dave Kopel, an adjunct constitutional law professor at Denver University.
More concealed carry permits
In the past 30 years, the number of states that automatically issue concealed-carry permits after a background check have gone from nine to 37, meaning that “Americans have in most places practical social experience with guns, where if you go out in public, out of every 100 people you pass there’s probably going to be a few who are lawfully carrying concealed weapons, and they’re not maniacs,” says Professor Kopel. “That experience accumulates.”
For their part, gun-control advocates hope the Arizona shooting will change the pro-gun rights momentum of the past decade, especially seeing as this time a mass shooting touched Congress personally.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) of New York and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, are preparing legislation that would ban the kind of high-capacity magazines allegedly used by the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, on Jan. 8. A bill aimed at preventing anyone from carrying a gun within 1,000 feet of a member of Congress, as well as other high-profile government officials, is forthcoming from Rep. Pete King (R) of New York.
And on Wednesday, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York, offered up legislation to close a loophole that allows gun dealers whose licenses have been revoked to continue to sell firearms without background checks.
Usually “politicians turn a blind eye to this,” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells The Huffington Post. “They’ll talk about anything except guns. My main hope with this shooting is that maybe now we’ll finally start to talk about the intolerable level of gun violence in this country.”
Limiting specific guns ‘off the table’
Largely because Democrats are not expecting President Obama to back any major gun-control package, Representative McCarthy, one of the strongest gun-control advocates in Congress, has said any bills to control specific guns like the Glock 19 semiautomatic used in the Arizona shootings are “off the table.” And experts like Kopel say even the proposed new restrictions will have trouble passing Congress in the face of stated opposition from House Speaker John Boehner.
With 85 guns in circulation for every 100 Americans, the sheer prevalence of guns leads to a high rate of gun-deaths – some 30,000 a year – in the US when compared with other Western countries. Yet in a country so heavily armed – and that reality protected in large part by the Second Amendment – gun-control measures, to many Americans, seem more a theoretical exercise when weighed against individual responsibility to protect oneself in the face of trouble, gun-rights experts say.
“Simply telling people to behave passively or to defend themselves in some other way is not very good advice,” John Lott Jr., the author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” told the conservative National Review Online this week. “Having a gun is by far the safest course of action for those left to confront a criminal alone.”
In Arizona, which has some 39,000 words in its statutes related to gun control, the campus-carry legislation follows a major expansion of gun rights last year when the legislature made Arizona the sixth state to pass the “Firearms Freedom Act,” which exempts any firearm made and used inside the state’s borders from federal regulations. If passed, the campus-carry law would give the state the lowest score in the US on a gun-control scorecard kept by the Brady Campaign.
Wrong lessons from the shooting
To many Arizonans, talking about how to get more guns into more hands even as the country grieves signals that the state is taking the wrong lessons from Saturday’s tragic shooting.
“Arizonans, myself included, love to tout their vaunted independence and Western values,” writes Katherine Benton-Cohen, a Georgetown University professor, on Politico. “But when we perpetuate the idea that Arizona is some unchanging Wild West, we fall into the trap of a myth that only serves to embolden those who refuse to support common-sense restrictions on purchasing firearms.”
In part, the failures of the gun-control movement nationally came out of a calculated decision by Democrats to court conservative and pro-Second Amendment Blue Dog Democrats in the South and West, a strategy which helped bring about Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, laying the foundation for the passage of landmark legislation such as health-care reform.
One of those Blue Dogs is Representative Giffords, a Second Amendment proponent who also owns a Glock.