Will Connecticut shooting change U.S. support for gun rights?

The deadly Connecticut school shooting has inevitably reopened the volatile debate over gun control, even though recent polls suggest the majority of Americans are still more concerned with protecting their right to own guns.

More Americans want to protect their right to own guns

The deadly Newtown, Conn., school shooting has inevitably reopened the volatile debate over gun control, even though recent polls suggest the majority of Americans are still more concerned with protecting their right to own guns.

On Friday, while an emotional U.S. President Barack Obama did not specifically wade into the issue, he did hint that some sort of political action was needed.

"As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theatre in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods and these children are our children," Obama said. "And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

Authorities have said that three guns were found — a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school and a .223-calibre rifle in the back of a car.

Earlier, White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn’t say whether the issue of gun control would become a higher priority on the president’s agenda.

Carney said there would be a day for the issue "but I don’t think today is that day."

A man carries a child away from the area of a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

However, as news broke about the massacre, people flooded social media, many calling for tighter gun controls.

"Too soon to speak out about a gun-crazy nation? No, too late. At least THIRTY-ONE school shootings since Columbine," tweeted filmmaker Michael Moore, whose documentary  Bowling for Columbine focused on U.S gun culture. 

Capt. Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was among dozens shot outside a supermarket near Tucson, said on Facebook that all the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and all victims of gun violence "deserve leaders who have the courage to participate in a meaningful discussion about our gun laws — and how they can be reformed and better enforced to prevent gun violence and death in America."

'Need immediate action'

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a statement calling for action: "We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again."

"President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action."

Appearing on CBC's Power & Politics, David Jacobson, the U.S ambassador to Canada, said something needs to be done addressing the fact that "these things happen all too often in this country and they tend to be the same kind of thing."

"This isn't a political issue, this is an American issue. This is a human issue. And we just need to find a way to address it and to try and find a way to address it outside of the usual political back and forth."

Similar calls to look at gun laws rang out following the July shooting rampage in Colorado at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded. 

But despite the rhetoric, the issue seemed to fade away. During the presidential campaign it barely made a ripple and neither Republican or Democratic convention addressed the issue.

Indeed, polls show that support for stricter gun control has steadily declined in the U.S. over the last two decades.

A 1991 Gallup poll found that 78 per cent of Americans favoured stricter laws on the sale of firearms, 17 per cent wanted the laws kept the same, and just two per cent saying they should be less strict.

By 2011 the numbers had steadily shifted. While the number saying they wanted stricter gun control had fallen to 43 per cent, 44 per cent favoured the status quo and 11 per cent wanted less strict gun control.

That Gallup poll also found that 45 per cent of Americans say they have a gun in their home.

Drop in support for gun control after Obama became president

Polls done by the Pew Research Centre also found a similar shift in attitudes over gun control. From 1993 through 2008, majority public opinion consistently landed in favour of gun control.

"We polled in April 2008 and a significant majority said the priority should be controlling gun ownership rather than protecting the right to own guns. By April 2009 it was about 50-50," said Carroll Dougherty, associate director of research at Pew.

In  a Pew poll done in April of this year, 49  per cent of Americans said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 45 per cent said it was more important to control gun ownership.

The shift coincides with Obama taking office, observes Dougherty.

"There was a reaction to Obama’s presidency. There was a growing concern at that time that there would be new restrictions on gun ownership coming down and it had the effect of raising the profile of this issue and mobilizing support for gun rights."

Pew has done six polls on the issue since April 2009. "What’s interesting is it has not moved in either direction since then. It’s been very stable," said Dougherty.

A partisan issue

Moreover, it’s long been a partisan issue but it’s even more partisan than ever today, he added.

"Most of the change has come from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. In 2007, half of Republicans supported gun rights. Now it’s 72 per cent. Change among Democrats is very modest" but in the same direction, he said.

It remains to be seen if the massacre in Newtown will have much impact on public opinion of gun control.

Pew did polls after two high-profile shootings: the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, with 32 killed and 17 wounded, as well as the rampage in Arizona on January 8, 2011, that killed six people and  injured 19 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"We have asked this question about gun rights in the wake of high-profile shootings. There has not been a major shift in opinion after those events," said Dougherty.

Mass shootings 'isolated acts?'

In the polls, people were asked, "Do you think this shooting reflects broader problems in American society, or are things like this just the isolated acts of troubled individuals?"

In 2007, 47 per cent said they were isolated acts while 46 per cent said they reflected broader problems in society, such as a breakdown in social values, which was singled out by 37 per cent of respondents.

After the Arizona shootings in 2011, 58 per cent were saying they were isolated acts and 31 per cent said they reflected broader problems in society, like the social or political climate or the lack of mental health services.

Only 14 per cent in 2007 and 13 per cent in 2011 blamed lax gun laws, saying it was too easy to get guns.

State police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School following Friday's shooting. (Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee/Associated Press)

While conservatives tended to view the events as isolated incidents, in 2007 liberals tended to see them as part of broader social problems.

"These attitudes are becoming more fixed over time, though it’s difficult to say why," said Dougherty.

Gun control and the shooters' motive

Obama, while visibly moved by the recent tragedies, has been noticeably reticent about calling for stiffer regulation on gun ownership. In fact, shortly after the Colorado shooting, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama remains committed to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines the right of Americans to bear arms.

According to Carney, the president "believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons."

The debate about gun control may be masking the real underlying issues in these high-profile mass shootings, Scot Wortley, a professor of criminology and socio-legal studies at the University of Toronto, said earlier this year.

"I really cannot explain the American public’s love affair with guns. We’re often not talking about individuals having handguns for protection. The debate has gotten down to whether or not people should be able to have high-powered rifles or weapons that are primarily designed for wartime."

Even in countries with good gun control, mass shootings take place, he adds, pointing to the Norway massacre last summer that killed 77 people and wounded 319 in two separate attacks.

"Norway probably has gun control laws that are as tough, if not tougher, than we have in Canada," Wortley said.

"Beyond the guns themselves, we have to look at what actually motivates someone like [James] Holmes to engage in these acts. Guns make it easier for him to engage in mass homicide than a bat or knife would, but I’m sure his motivation goes much deeper than issues of gun control."

With files from The Associated Press