Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and now Aurora - again and again, public shootings have rocked the US. Yet stricter gun laws are not in sight. Even President Obama and his election opponent have exercised restraint.
"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" - the right to private gun ownership is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. And Americans make abundant use of their right. According to a Gallup survey done last October, 47 percent of all households in the US own a weapon, a high not seen since 1993.
There are two possible reasons for the increase. Either there actually are more Americans who keep a pistol or rifle in their house, barn or car - in 2011, the FBI reported an increase in requests for background checks for weapons purchases - or gun owners now simply have less of a problem openly admitting to gun possession. Incidentally, the increase is a bipartisan phenomenon: among Republicans, ownership rose from 52 percent in 2010 to 55 percent, while Democrat gun owners jumped from 32 to 40 percent.
Changes to gun laws not in sight
The run on weapons can't be linked to an increase in violent crime, since the rate has actually dropped in recent years. There were fewer murders, rapes and robberies in 2010 than a year earlier - although in these crimes, firearms did play a prominent role. Almost 70 percent of all murders and 40 percent of all robberies were carried out with weapons.
Shooting rampages, most recently in Aurora, Colorado last Friday, where 12 people were killed when 24-year-old James Holmes shot moviegoers at random, make headlines but don't lead to a change in gun laws. And yet in March 2011, two months after another attack in Tucson, Arizona in which six people were killed and US politician Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded, President Barack Obama said in a commentary in the Arizona Daily Star that Americans needed to find a way to make "the United States a safer place."
Failing grade for Obama
But even then, Obama limited his demands to simply better implementing the existing gun laws, rather than introduce new, stricter, uniform nationwide legislation. And he pointed out that his government had even extended the rights of gun owners, saying Americans should be allowed to carry their weapons in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
The weapon-friendly policies of the Obama administration prompted the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, which advocates for stricter gun laws across the US, to give the president an "F" for "failing" in 2009.
Among other things, the organization has accused Obama for failing to close the loophole that allows gun ownership to be transferred at gun shows without a background check. If a weapon is privately sold within state lines, this restriction is also waived. In addition, the restriction on the possession of semiautomatic weapons, which expired in 2004, has not yet been renewed.
It was just such a weapon, an AR-15, that Holmes used in his attack at the Aurora movie theater. The gun jammed, forcing him to switch to a second weapon with less firepower - otherwise Americans would probably be mourning even more deaths.
Powerful gun lobby
The details for weapons purchases are governed by the individual states - and those details differ from state to state, for example, in terms of waiting periods or whether or not the weapons are registered.
After the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, which left 32 people dead, a national law was enacted to encourage the disclosure of medical reports to the FBI, but it wasn't made mandatory. The Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, had been classified by doctors as mentally disturbed and was in psychiatric treatment, but he was still able to buy the weapons with which he caused a bloodbath.
But even after such massacres, the US gun lobby, led by the powerful NRA (National Rifle Association) has resisted constitutional changes and rejected any move to make changes to gun laws. And it's been making claims that Obama secretly plans to abolish the Second Amendment by 2016. Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, has warned of "a very real, very dangerous conspiracy and public deception, which would destroy the right to bear arms." As evidence, he has quoted Obama's earlier statements.
Change of heart
In fact, Obama has previously presented much stricter views on gun laws. As Senator for Illinois, he called for a ban on semiautomatic weapons, a claim which he repeated as a presidential candidate in 2008. He also spoke out in favor of background checks at gun shows.
But not much has happened since then, and in his speech following the Aurora shooting he concentrated on sending his condolences to the survivors and families of the victims. Only at the end of his remarks did he express his hope "that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country."
White House press secretary Jay Carney later told reporters later that Obama was concentrating on better implementing the existing laws. "The president's view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law," he said. "And that's his focus right now."
Less talk, more action
"We don't want sympathy, we want action," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign. Gross's appeal wasn't just directed at the president but also his Republican challenger in the presidential race, Mitt Romney. It was he who, as governor of Massachusetts in 2004, called for a permanent ban on assault rifles.
"Assault weapons have no place in Massachusetts," Romney said at the time. "These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people." But as a presidential contender openly courting the favor of the gun lobby, he appears to have changed his views. In 2006, he became a lifelong NRA member.
Both Obama and Romney know only too well that a presidential candidate calling for tougher gun laws cannot expect to make any headway with the US electorate, not to mention win an election.
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington / cmk
Editor: Rob Mudge