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Muted gun control debate after Tucson shootings reflects new attitude

WASHINGTON — Echoing across three decades, the roar of gunfire, politics and madness resounds once more.

1981: A mentally ill 25-year-old empties a pistol as President Ronald Reagan exits the Washington Hilton Hotel, leaving him seriously wounded.

The public outcry leads to a landmark gun control law.

2011: A 22-year-old man described as mentally unhinged empties a pistol into a crowd at an Arizona shopping center, killing six and wounding 13, including a congresswoman.

This time the outcry leads to a fight over fighting words.

The debate is over whether Rush Limbaugh is too mean and Keith Olbermann too sarcastic, whether the political parties are too nasty toward each other.

In Tucson on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called for an end to the overheated rhetoric, urging a new era of civility to honor the victims. The shootings, he noted, had raised a discussion about "the merits of gun safety laws." Then he quickly moved on.

Has America moved on as well?

Public support for gun control has faded over the three decades despite chilling public shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, and politicians are less willing to wade into the complex and divisive Second Amendment debate.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have expanded gun rights, not taken them away. The National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies have exercised their organizational and political muscle to win a broad array of new freedoms in states.

And consider: As Arizona residents tried to comprehend the tragedy last week, gun sales there soared by 60 percent. People are not worried for their safety. They are worried the government will try to make it harder to get a gun.

Legislation is being drafted in Washington, but chances are nothing will happen.

"A lot of people have given up on the issue," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y..

• • •

Nearly two decades ago, a gunman murdered McCarthy's husband on a Long Island commuter train. As a lawmaker, she has focused her attention on gun control measures, including banning high-capacity ammunition magazines. Their manufacture and import was outlawed under the 1994 assault weapons ban, but the law expired a decade later.

Authorities say 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner popped a 33-round magazine into his Glock semiautomatic last Saturday in Tucson. He shot 19 people before being tackled when a second magazine jammed.

McCarthy's bill would restrict magazines to 10 bullets. (The typical is 15.) "I'm not trying to take anyone's gun away," she insisted.

Still, odds are against her.

The bill did not pass when Democrats controlled the House, and now power rests with Republicans, who in general have resisted more gun control.

House Speaker John Boehner even opposes a proposal from New York Republican Rep. Pete King to outlaw possessing a firearm within 1,000 feet of a member of Congress. King has been besieged with calls from critics who say he is trying to take away their Second Amendment rights.

While many lawmakers in Washington were ducking the gun issue last week — focusing, as Obama had, on civility — others said they fear "knee-jerk" responses to a tragedy.

"It appears to me there is plenty of legislation in place," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. (Despite that, he began working on a bill to allow lawmakers to carry a concealed gun around Capitol grounds.)

Gohmert said the problem was that people around Loughner failed to act as he showed signs of instability. "They closed their doors, they shut their eyes and closed their ears and acted like he wasn't a potential threat."

Loughner legally purchased the Glock 19 at a Sportsman's Warehouse on Nov. 30, passing an instant background check. Despite a history of confusing, paranoid outbursts, he was not flagged as someone who should be ineligible to own a gun.

The Virginia Tech shootings led to federal incentives for states to improve reporting of people with mental health problems. Virginia, for example, has since added more than 49,000 names to a database. Florida has identified 23,500 people, Arizona about 4,500.

Some predict that any legislative response would deal with mental illness, not whether a magazine should be smaller or whether the public at large should have to go through more hoops to obtain and carry a weapon.

"It's not a gun issue," said Bill Bunting, a firearms instructor and Republican activist in Florida. "This guy had a mental defect, evidentially. If they are out to destroy, they are out to destroy. If they can't get their hands on a gun, they will get their hands on something else."

The NRA has kept quiet on the proposed legislation, insisting it is time to grieve. But the organization can also count Congress in its corner, with some Democrats joining Republicans in opposing more controls.

• • •

Public support for stricter gun control laws went up after the shootings in Tucson. Overall, 47 percent of Americans favor tougher regulations, according to a CBS News poll, up from 40 percent in April 2010.

But a jump is expected after a highly publicized tragedy, and the trend has been toward less control.

In 1990, when Gallup first asked about laws covering the sale of firearms, 79 percent of Americans said such laws should be stricter. By 2000, it was down to 62 percent. And last October it dropped to 44 percent.

In that time, the assault weapons ban expired and states have expanded gun rights. Arizona has some of the most permissive in the country, allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit and into restaurants and bars and government buildings.

Florida's gun rights have been expanded in recent years as well. In 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist signed an NRA-pushed law allowing concealed weapons permit holders to bring their guns to work, as long as the weapons remained in their vehicles.

Attitudes among Democrats have shifted as well. Al Gore was hurt by his gun control stance in the 2000 presidential election. Four years later, fellow Democrat John Kerry made sure news cameras captured him on pheasant and duck hunts.

"Democrats have learned it's not a winning issue in most areas," said Harry Wilson, a political science professor at Roanoke College who has written about gun control.

The NRA in 2008 claimed "Barack Obama would be the most antigun president in American history." Obama was solidly in favor of gun controls as a member of the Illinois Legislature, hailing from gun-riddled Chicago.

As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2004, Obama said it was a "scandal" that President George W. Bush was allowing the assault weapons ban to expire.

So when Obama won the presidency, people rushed to buy weapons and ammunition, fearing he would push for a renewal and other controls.

It never happened.

Obama has not touched the gun issue and even signed bills that allow people to carry guns into national parks and in checked luggage on Amtrak. (those provisions were tacked onto bills he wanted).

"He hasn't followed through on anything he said he was going to do. We gave him an F last year," said Chad Ramsey of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

He holds out hope that the shooting of a popular congresswoman will spur Congress to act. "This is one of their own that's been attacked," Ramsey said.

But many in Congress said last week that they were focused on the victims and fixing the toxic political climate, not opening the gun debate, particularly when power is divided.

"It's a tough issue to reach consensus on," acknowledged Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat who has favored gun control.

Asked Thursday if the president would press for more limits, press secretary Robert Gibbs said only, "We'll have an opportunity to evaluate some of the other proposals."

Even though Obama barely mentioned guns the other night in Arizona, the Brady Campaign said it was a positive sign that he even did. The group urged him to create a presidential study commission.

For now, the debate is fixed on the dangers of heated political rhetoric. Obama is gearing up for re-election and will likely not highlight gun issues.

"We need to have a serious conversation in America about guns," said Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "But it seems nobody wants to talk about guns."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Muted gun control debate after Tucson shootings reflects new attitude 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 8:28pm]
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