Both President Obama and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, reaffirmed their support for gun rights in the aftermath of the shootings and declined to back new gun control measures. On the contrary, Obama spokesman Jay Carney stressed that the president would “protect Second Amendment rights.” While the call for stricter gun control did go up from predictable sources like liberal columnists and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the media mostly restrained the impulse to endorse new restrictions on firearms.
Democrats and anti-gun activists wasted little time assigning blame for the dearth of enthusiasm for gun control to that familiar boogeyman, the National Rifle Association. Thus, New York’s Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer lamented what he called the “power of the NRA” in stifling political support for gun control, while in neighboring New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez complained that the NRA was using its “money” and “resources” to “oppose all reasonable gun legislation” and to drive the national debate in its favor.
However one measures the political clout of the NRA, the organization simply is not powerful enough to transform American public opinion in the manner that Democrats suggest. Indeed, their argument has it backward: To the extent that the NRA’s skepticism about gun control is influential in American politics it is because it mostly reflects a gradual decline in support for gun control among the American public. Polls bear this out. A 1991 Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans supported stricter laws on the sale of firearms. By 2011, public support for gun control had eroded, with just 43 percent favoring stricter gun control. Americans still have their political hobbyhorses, but by and large gun control is not one of them.
Several factors explain gun control’s plummeting popularity. For one thing, much of current gun control legislation was enacted into law on the dubious premise that a reduced availability of legal firearms would curtail violent crime. Yet, as the economist John Lott has long argued, the correlation between guns and crime is statistically shaky. Crime rates have fallen in the United States for several decades even as rates of gun ownership have increased. Washington D.C., which until recently had one of the strictest gun control laws in the country, also has some of the highest rates of crime in the nation. In fact, crime rates shot up after the city’s ban on handguns went into effect in 1976. The United States is not the only country to illustrate the paradox of more guns and less crime. Countries like Israel and Switzerland have comparatively lax gun control regimes, yet their homicide rates are roughly comparable to those of the UK and Japan, which have strict gun control policies.
If gun control policies do not neatly correlate with crime, neither are they effective in stopping crazed murderers like alleged Aurora killer James Holmes. People who are prepared to defy laws against murder are unlikely to be deterred by laws against gun ownership. The relatively sophisticated explosives that Holmes was able to rig up in his apartment using everyday items like glass bottles and gasoline suggest that he would have been no less deadly or dangerous for lacking a firearm. The painful reality is that, short of early detection, there is little that can be done to stop the James Holmes’s of the world. One need look no further than Norway, whose strict gun controls failed to prevent psychopath Anders Behring Breivik from acquiring the guns and bombs he used to kill 77 people one year ago.
A less apparent reason for the public's coolness to gun control is that much of the so-called “reasonable gun legislation” for which some gun foes clamor has already been enacted. For instance, the Gun Control Act of 1968 established national restrictions on gun sales, requiring dealers to acquire a federal license, to track records of sales, to limit interstate sales and to end mail-order deliveries. The act also made it illegal under federal law to sell guns to minors as well as convicted felons, fugitives from justice, drug abusers, and anyone with a history of mental illness. (Reflecting the voting patterns of the time, the bill was actually supported by more Republicans than Democrats.) The GCA was supplemented by the 1994 Brady Act, which requires licensed dealers to conduct a background check on prospective buyers to establish that they don’t fit into any of the prohibited categories.
These federal laws were bolstered and in many cases preempted by state and municipal laws that place additional restrictions on firearms sales. Until it was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, Washington's D.C. gun control policy amounted to a virtual ban on handguns (at least for those who wanted to obtain them legally). Colorado, like Midwestern states generally, has less restrictive gun laws but gun rights in the state are not absolute. Among other restrictions, there are limits on people’s ability to carry concealed weapons. Aurora’s Century 16 Theater was one such gun-free zone. As in other cases, however, this regulation deterred law-abiding citizens but not a determined mass murderer.
It’s hardly unusual in American politics for supporters of gun control to seize on a gun-related tragedy like Aurora to advance their cause. If that strategy has not been adopted this time around by politically savvy Democrats like President Obama, it’s because he knows that it is out of step with the tenor of the times. Democrats are surely correct that there is a powerful force standing in the way of more restrictive gun legislation. But it’s not the NRA – it’s the American public.