Stiffer US gun control? Not any time soon, say experts

People take part in a candlelight vigil on the front driveway of WDBJ-TV's television studios on Aug 27, 2015, in Roanoke, Virginia.
People take part in a candlelight vigil on the front driveway of WDBJ-TV's television studios on Aug 27, 2015, in Roanoke, Virginia.PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (AFP) - With mass shootings seemingly on a daily basis, it appears that no place in the United States is safe from carnage: not churches, not schools, not even the morning newscast.

The shocking on-air murder of a young reporter and a cameraman by a disgruntled former colleague on Wednesday has once again renewed calls for stricter gun controls.

That is simply not going to happen, experts said, and the trend in recent years has actually gone in the opposite direction.

"You can't get rid of them," Harry Wilson, a professor at Roanoke College in Virginia - near the scene of the latest shooting - told AFP.

A landmark 2008 decision by the Supreme Court outlawed major restrictions on gun ownership by ruling that the constitutional right to bear arms included the right to keep a loaded handgun for self-defence.

The government can still impose some restrictions, such as prohibiting convicted criminals and the mentally ill from owning guns and requiring background checks prior to purchase.

But the political climate has led to a drastic loosening of gun controls in recent years, despite the many calls to the contrary following a series of increasingly horrific mass shootings.

President Barack Obama pushed hard but failed to restrict the sale of military-style assault rifles and failed to strengthen background checks after 20 children were killed in a shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in December 2012.

Obama said last month that his failure to tighten gun laws was the greatest source of frustration during his time in office.

- SHIFT IN PERCEPTIONS -

"We've not seen any movement on national gun law changes in recent years because of the Republican party's ascendance at the national level and also because the gun lobby is very effective politically at mobilising their supporters," said Robert Spitzer, a professor at State University of New York at Cortland who has published four books on gun control.

Republicans are closely aligned with gun rights supporters and are strongly opposed to enacting most laws championed by Obama.

"Also, the gun lobby has been fairly effective at advancing its message that gun laws don't really matter," Spitzer said in a telephone interview.

"There is mounting evidence that gun laws do matter - especially on people who ought not to have access to guns - but that is not the prevailing political message that many or most Americans hear, which is that gun laws only restrict honest people and don't have an effect on people who would do bad things with guns."

There has been a substantial shift in public perceptions since Obama was elected in 2008.

In surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in the 1990s and early 2000s, about a third of Americans said it was more important to protect gun rights than to control guns.

That jumped up to 45 per cent in the years following Obama's election and was up to 50 per cent in July.

When asked about specific policies, however, 70-85 per cent of Americans were in favour of requiring background checks at gun shows and in private sales, laws preventing the mentally ill from buying guns and creating a federal database to track gun sales.

- SYMBOL OF FREEDOM -

An "intensity gap" is often cited as the reason why even these so-called common sense measures are not enacted.

Gun rights supporters are fervent and well organized. While there has been a surge in new gun control advocacy groups in recent years, they remain outnumbered and outspent.

Guns are also a potent symbol of freedom, patriotism and individualism in the United States, said Jim Taylor, a sociology professor at Ohio University.

They are woven into the fabric of the American experience from the nation's founding through armed rebellion against a tyrannical king to the frontier folk heroes like Davy Crockett.

And they saturate American culture with countless appearances in movies, television shows, books and songs on the radio.

Random acts of violence like a 2012 shooting at a Colorado movie theater that left 12 people dead and 70 wounded can actually serve to reinforce support for gun rights.

"The perception in the minds of some people is, 'This is going to keep happening and maybe I need to arm myself,'" Taylor said.

America's gun violence problem cannot be solved with simple solutions like background checks, said Wilson, who has written extensively about the politics of gun control and is also a political commentator for the Virginia news station targeted in Wednesday's attack.

"Most of these shooters are buying these guns legally," Wilson said.

"You can ask the question, 'Why do we have the firepower to do this to one another?' You can also ask the question 'Why do we want to do this to one another?' Those are both important questions."