Top Videos
Related Topics
gun control
2008 Polls NationalIowaNew HampshireGeneral Election
GOP | DemGOP | DemGOP | DemHead-to-Head

Send to a Friend | Print Article

VTech Shows Gun Control Has Lost Its Political Luster

By Peter Brown

The absence of concrete efforts by big-name Democrats to increase gun control is a sure sign that even with the Virginia Tech massacre the issue is no longer a major subject of dispute in American politics.

The shooting in which 33 people died was the deadliest in U.S. history, but generated much less gun control buzz than previous less bloody episodes because Democrats have decided it is too costly politically for them to push further restrictions.

It is further evidence that the pro-gun control folks won the battle of the early 90s over limiting access to things like semi-automatic weapons, but lost the war in their efforts to make U.S. laws as strict as those in European nations.

Don't look for that dynamic to change. Democrats, historically the backers of gun control, have decided it cost them too many votes in rural areas, especially in key presidential battleground states.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid immediately warned his colleagues against a rush to push gun control following the tragedy. No presidential candidates jumped forward with new proposals.

Public opinion, even before the massacre, favored stricter gun control, but the momentum and enthusiasm has been with its opponents. The exit polls in 2004 showed more voters own guns than in the past and they vote Republican.

That's not to say there aren't millions of voters who want more gun control. Last October, a Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans favored stricter gun control laws, but that's compared to 78 percent in a 1990 Gallup survey. New polls will almost certainly show a jump from the 56 percent in support for gun control because of the tragedy.

In the 1990s, Congress banned the sale of assault rifles and cop-killer bullets, and required a waiting period and background check to buy handguns. But the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

It is significant that following the shooting, the news media focused on the inability of Virginia Tech officials to lock down their campus in between the two rampages, rather than giving voice to the gun opponents. A decade or two ago, a tragedy of this magnitude would have become a rallying point for new gun control legislation.

But the 2000 presidential election cemented the emerging consensus among Democrats that gun control was a losing issue for them. Al Gore's 538-vote loss in Florida that cost him the election would almost certainly have been reversed had he not angered gun owners with his promises to seek stricter controls.

And, after the 2000 election, Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe publicly advised party candidates to drop calls for federal legislation because the pro-gun control position was a political loser.

Yet, even without campaigning on the issue, in 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry lost the 41 percent of the electorate in which someone in the household owned a gun by 63-36 percent. That was a larger margin than President Bush had among military veterans or married couples with children, two bedrock GOP constituencies. In fact, Bush's margin among gun owners was greater than Kerry's among union members.

All this is a testament to what Gerard Baker, perhaps the best known European explainer of the United States to the Continent, calls the aspect of "American Exceptionalism" that foreigners find most baffling.

Baker, the Times of London's Washington correspondent, says his European brethren are more mystified by what he calls Americans' "gun culture," than, for instance, the U.S. economic system that creates large wealth disparities, or our strong religious beliefs.

Why are attitudes toward guns so different here than on the other side of the pond? Part of it is legal - the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that protects individuals' right to bear arms -- a guarantee that grew out of the British efforts in pre-Revolutionary War times to take away the colonists' weapons.

But there is a more fundamental reason. Americans are less trusting of government than are Europeans. In general, they are less willing to give government power of any type to limit individual choice, and that includes gun ownership.

All of this means that gun control in the United States isn't likely to rear its head any time soon, despite horrific events as occurred in Blacksburg.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

Email Friend | Print | RSS | Add to | Add to Digg
Sponsored Links

Peter Brown
Author Archive