By Andrew Scoggin
The hearing — the committee’s first on gun violence in more than a year, according to The Washington Post — included testimony from former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre (aka this guy).
It went about as expected (although, Ted Cruz did bring props). Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Congress can “do something reasonable” about violence and “guns must be included,” while Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said “the problem is greater than guns alone.”
(Separate from the hearing, another senator said some crazy things Wednesday about how “video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns.”)
But let’s step out of the D.C. vacuum. How do we, the people who elect the policy-making pontificators, feel about gun control and ownership rights?
It seems we’re pretty well split on the issue — until questions about specific policies come into play.
A mid-January poll by the Pew Research Center found 51 percent of people said controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights, while 45 percent said the opposite. While it has wavered a few percentage points here and there, those numbers haven’t changed much since a 49 to 45 split in April 2009.
Thing is, until recently, Americans weren’t as evenly divided on gun control. And it wasn’t even close.
In 1993, 57 percent favored gun control to 34 percent who favored gun rights, according to Pew. That gap yawned to 66 to 29 in 2000, shrunk to 54 to 42 in 2003, widened to 60 to 32 in 2007 before contracting sharply to that 49 to 45 in 2009.
So what happened? Not that correlation equals causation, but some patterns emerge when looking at history. Congress, in 1993, passed the Brady Bill, requiring federal background checks on firearms. The shooting at Columbine occurred in 1999, which could have affected 2000 polls. The polling gap shrunk after 9/11, then expanded once again by 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech shooting. That dramatic contraction came after the election of President Obama.
And even though the opinion split is roughly even today, gun rights proponents are way more likely to do something about their convictions. About 42 percent reported at least one expression of political opinion, like contributing money or contacting a public official, compared to 25 percent of those who prioritize gun control. (Gun rights backers are also voicing their opinion with their wallets.)
That exuberance might help explain why there’s been little to no action on gun control since the 2004 expiration of the assault weapons ban, despite an overall public support of individual measures.
Some of that support is overwhelming, according to Pew, particularly background checks on guns sold privately and at gun shows (85 percent) and purchase restrictions on those with a mental illness (80 percent). Even Republicans, the chosen party of many gun owners, back those measures at 85 percent and 86 percent, respectively.
The remainder of measures polled by Pew didn’t see as dramatic of gaps, but a majority still favored those that curbed gun rights, including a federal database to track gun sales (67 percent) and bans on semi-automatic weapons (58 percent), assault-style weapons (55 percent), high-capacity ammunition clips (54 percent) and online sales of ammo (53 percent).
Respondents were also fond of more armed security guards or police at schools (67 percent), but not arming the actual teachers (40 percent).
Obviously opinions on the issue of gun control, just like anything else, can exist beyond ideological extremes. Gun rights advocates can favor restrictions and regulations, just as gun control supporters can respect the Second Amendment.
And judging by public opinion, most people would likely agree “something must be done,” as said Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly said during testimony Wednesday. But that’s easier said than done when strong feelings are involved.