Thursday, April 18, 2013

 

What now for gun control? A look at the issue

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The impassioned push for new gun laws, born from the slaughter of schoolchildren, has collided with the marble-hard realities of Congress.

 Where gun control stands: Neil Heslin, father of six-year-old Newtown victim Jesse Lewis, left, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., stands by President Barack Obama as he gestures while speaking during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, on Wednesday about measures to reduce gun violence.

WASHINGTON — Persuading the Senate to debate tougher laws was considered a high hurdle for gun control advocates. They did it with the aid of Newtown, Conn., families, who brought photos and stories of the slain to the Capitol. A series of Senate votes Wednesday marked the biggest moment in nearly two decades for those who want to limit guns in America, and for those who don't. The bill on gun control failed.

Afterward, President Barack Obama said his administration would do what it can without Congress. And Obama said now that the issue has been revived, it won't go away.

But it's unclear what, if anything, comes next in gun politics. A look at the issue:

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WHERE IT STANDS NOW

The major components of Obama's plan — background checks, the assault weapons ban, the limit on ammunition magazines — were quashed by the Senate.

Some members of his own Democratic Party, which controls the Senate, opposed the measures. Republicans were nearly united against them.

At a news conference with the president, Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the Newtown shooting, said the families would return home "disappointed but not defeated."

Obama urged supporters to pressure Congress to reconsider the issue and voters to remember it on Election Day. "I see this as just round one," he said.

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PROTECTING SCHOOLS

The National Rifle Association, the lead group lobbying against gun control, wants to keep the focus on protecting students at school.

A task force created by the gun rights group recommends that schools use specially trained armed guards or police officers to protect students, if the local community agrees. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre says, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

The NRA task force also called for private funding and federal grants to help pay for increased security. And it says schools need to improve their ability to assess threats and handle warnings of violent or antisocial behavior by students.

Obama has proposed spending more federal money to help schools improve safety by adding specially trained police officers and counselors and improving safety planning.

The public is about evenly divided on the idea of requiring an armed guard in every school, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in March.

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BACKGROUND CHECKS

They're hugely popular: More than 8 in 10 Americans support requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows, according to the AP-GfK poll in January. So closing the "gun-show loophole" looked like a potential place where gun control Democrats and gun rights Republicans might agree.

Two senators, Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, tried to bridge the divide with a compromise that would subject buyers at gun shows and on the Internet to the checks but exempt noncommercial transactions like sales between friends and family. On Wednesday their measure was supported by a majority of senators but fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

The existing system, created under the 1993 Brady law, requires licensed gun dealers to submit a buyer's name before completing the sale. Convicted criminals and people who have been declared by a judge to be "mentally defective" are among those barred from buying a gun. Private gun owners and sellers at gun shows don't have to run the federal checks.

It's unclear how many buyers avoid scrutiny this way. Gun control advocates often claim that about 40 percent of guns are sold without the checks. But that's based on a survey from 20 years ago, when the background check system was just starting, and it was considered a rough approximation.

A few states have their own, more comprehensive background check requirements.
MENTAL ILLNESS

Another area of public agreement: Eight in 10 Americans want more done to prevent people who are mentally ill from buying a gun, according to Pew Research Center polling.

One way is to do a better job of getting treatment to people who need it. Obama wants to spend $235 million in federal money to identify and treat mental illness, especially in young people, and to study how to prevent shootings. The idea has appeal on both sides of the gun control debate, as well as among advocates for the mentally ill, although they stress that most people who need care aren't violent.

U.S. law bans gun sales to people who have been involuntarily committed or formally found to be dangerously mentally ill by a court or similar authority. But the federal background check system is weakened by paltry information from some states. Obama says he will do more to encourage states to share their mental health records.

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan amendment to bolster federal mental health programs, but it's attached to the broader gun bill that's going nowhere.

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HIGH-CAPACITY MAGAZINES

The Senate rejected Obama's call to revive the expired ban on sales of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

These devices feed bullets into the firing chamber automatically. The larger the capacity, the more bullets a shooter can fire without pausing. In an attack, a killer who stops to reload might give victims a chance to flee or fight back.

Police said Adam Lanza came to Sandy Hook Elementary with several 30-round magazines and fired more than 150 shots. The shooter in the Colorado theater used a 100-round magazine, police said.

Half of Americans support a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines, according to the AP-GfK poll. Nearly 4 in 10 oppose it.

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SECOND AMENDMENT

It's the Constitution's Second Amendment that guarantees a right to guns.

It says, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Exactly what that means has been debated for decades. In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that it gives individuals a right to own firearms, even if they're not in a militia. But the justices also have signaled that some regulation of guns can be constitutional.

Which laws pass muster? The court has yet to say. Several states have gun restrictions that are tougher than U.S. law and are being challenged in court. Those cases should lead to more clarity.

Meanwhile, Connecticut, New York, Colorado and Maryland tightened their gun laws in response to the recent mass shootings.

The January AP-GfK poll found 51 percent of Americans felt laws limiting gun ownership infringed on the public's right to bear arms; 41 percent said they do not.

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WHO OWNS GUNS?

About a third of Americans say someone in their household owns a gun, according to an AP-GfK poll. But gun ownership is declining. Back in 1977, about half of households had a gun, the General Social Survey found.

Protection is the top reason people give, according to a Pew Research Center poll. About half of gun owners cited safety; about a third said hunting.

Every state but Illinois and the District of Columbia issue permits to allow people to carry concealed weapons under certain conditions. For example, the gun owner might need to pass a background check first. Some states require safety classes or a license that's hard to get. The Senate on Wednesday rejected a Republican plan to make states recognize the permits issued by other states.

Federal laws prevent the government from tracking how many guns are sold every year and who buys them, so there are no definitive statistics.

Roughly 310 million guns were owned or available for sale in the United States in 2009, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That's about 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.

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