Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Should Democrats Pursue Gun Control?

In recent months there has been a glut of bizarre and often horrifying cases of gun violence in the United States. On Christmas Eve a man dressed as Santa Claus killed nine people at a house Christmas party in California. In March a gunman killed ten people including family members and an 18-month-old girl in Alabama.

On April 3rd a Vietnamese immigrant killed 13 workers in a shooting spree at a New York citizenship center. One day later, a laid-off worker in Pittsburg - convinced that the new Obama Administration was going to ban guns and become tyrannical - killed three police officers with an assault rifle and an AK-47.

And these are only a few of the stories.

Yet little is being done to pass strict gun control legislation in the United States. There are some very practical political reasons behind this.

According to a Gallup poll taken in October, 49% of Americans want stricter gun laws - a significant decrease since the 1990s. And a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken earlier this month shows only 39% of Americans still support stricter gun laws.

Gallup tracking also indicates that support for the Second Amendment is stronger than ever. Over the past 50 years, support for a ban on handguns has been cut in half.

Nonetheless, a substantial majority of Democrats - 6 in 10 according to the CNN poll - support stricter gun laws, and Democrats are the ones in power. But Democratic members of Congress, particularly from moderate and conservative-leaning districts, are not going to support more gun control for a simple reason: gun control support among independents has dropped 17% since 2007.

Americans are evenly divided on the issue by age and region, and women are a little more likely to support stricter gun laws then men. The real demographical disparity is party affiliation. According to Gallup, you are more likely to be against gun control if you are a Republican than if you are a gun owner.

In February, Attorney General Eric Holder told the press "There are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstate the ban on the sale of assault weapons." But without the support of Congress - and most importantly, Congresspersons from moderate and conservative districts - those changes are not possible.

Simply put, incumbents fear losing their seats and will not support a bill that too many constituents would oppose. Under this line of reasoning, now is not the time for the Democrats to make a substantial fight for gun control legislation.

The good news is that, despite the increase of headline murders like the ones above, overall gun violence is decreasing. According to FBI statistics, the annual murder rate has decreased from 9,800 killings about two decades ago to about 5,500 killings today. Even if stricter gun laws were implemented, it is not certain they would be the reason for a decrease in gun violence.

At least this appears to be the thought on the minds of an increasing number of Americans.

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