Whether Tragedy Will Lead to Change in Gun Laws Remains to Be Seen
Jan 10, 2013
By Brendan Conley, staff writer – January 10, 2013
As 2012 drew to a close, Americans were still reeling from the tragic shooting deaths of 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut. In the new year, as the 113th Congress introduced a flurry of gun-related bills and a newly-reelected President promised swift action, it remained uncertain whether the wave of sentiment would translate into effective legislation in the politically volatile area of gun control.
On the morning of December 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and opened fire. He was armed with an assault rifle and two semiautomatic handguns. Lanza killed 20 children and six adults in two classrooms before taking his own life. He had earlier that morning killed his mother at her home. 
The tragedy was horrific, and sadly familiar. The Newtown shootings were not the first mass shooting of the year, as just five months earlier, 12 people were killed and 58 others wounded when a gunman opened fire in a Colorado movie theater.  And the tragedy was only the most recent in a string of school shootings that have taken place in this country.
Also familiar was the political response, both from gun control advocates calling for more restrictions on firearms and from the political right, either urging that the tragedy not be “politicized,” or saying that more guns would better protect people. The same debate flared up in July after the Aurora, Colorado shooting, and in 2011, after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot in Tucson, Arizona, only to quiet down again in the face of the “third rail” of American politics: gun control.
Will things be different this time? President Obama and some in Congress seem more determined, but for any change to be successful, the facts and law must be weighed carefully.
When it comes to guns, Americans, it seems, are different; compared to other countries, Americans are very well-armed. And, overall, they seem to like it that way.
Gun control supporters hold a vigil outside the White House. Photograph by Xinhua News Agency/Eyevine/Redux.
The United States has more guns in civilian hands than any other nation in the world, both per capita (88.8 guns per 100 people) and total (270 million firearms). Gun control advocates would say it is no coincidence that the U.S. also has a higher rate of homicides committed with firearms than any other developed country.  However, neither of these numbers is anywhere near its peak. Four decades ago, there was a gun in close to half of American households, while that number has dipped below 40 percent in recent years. And gun murders and gun violence have been on a steady decline for decades, along with violent crime in general, though the reasons for this remain unclear. 
A majority of Americans believe that gun control laws should be made less strict or kept the same, and those opinions do not seem to change much after mass shootings that focus national attention on the issue. While the vast majority of Americans support a general right of gun ownership, specific policies controlling gun ownership have popular support, such as requiring background checks and registration and banning felons and the mentally ill from owning firearms. 
It is in this context of gun ownership and public opinion that any proposal to change gun laws must be examined.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In modern times, advocates and scholars have questioned whether the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun, or merely permits the establishment of armed militias. The U.S. Supreme Court ended that debate in a pair of landmark decisions in 2008 and 2010, ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment does in fact protect individual firearm ownership for self defense and in McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that the law is incorporated to state and local governments as well. 
Nevertheless, there are restrictions on gun ownership in the United States, such as age and criminal conviction regulations. More comprehensive gun control legislation has been opposed by gun-rights lobbying organizations, the most powerful of which is the National Rifle Association (NRA). The group, which formerly focused on gun safety courses and marksmanship competitions, has evolved into a political lobbying organization that spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year opposing gun control measures. What policy changes may be on the horizon, therefore, depends on politics. Ten bills having to do with guns were introduced on the first day of the 113th Congress, with varying degrees of likely success.
Eight of the bills were introduced by Democrats and would create stricter controls on firearms. One bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., would provide for background checks for firearm purchases and for employees of gun shops, make it illegal for people on the terrorist watch list to buy guns, establish federal standards for concealed-carry permits, and mandate that firearm owners report a lost or stolen gun. Moran claimed that a majority of NRA members support the measures. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tx., introduced a bill that would raise the minimum age for handgun ownership to 21, and Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush introduced a bill regulating gun licenses and records of firearm sales. On the other side of the aisle, Republican Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Steve Stockman of Texas introduced bills calling for the elimination of gun-free school zones, saying that they make people less safe. 
As for what changes Obama will push for, the President has promised swift action, though the details remain vague for the time being. Obama has vowed to make gun control a “central issue” of his second term, and to send specific proposals to Congress no later than the end of January. Obama said he had asked Vice-President Joe Biden to head an interagency effort to develop an approach to preventing mass shootings like the tragedy in Newtown, and that he would propose specific solutions in his State of the Union address this month.