In 1990, 78 percent of Americans supported tougher restrictions on gun sales, according to a Gallup poll. A decade later, that number fell to 44 percent.
Part of the reason has to do with how the debate has been framed: one between those who want to ban all guns and those who want to protect the right to own them.
The reality is far more complex. Private gun ownership is a fact of life in the U.S. The country tops the charts worldwide in terms of civilian gun ownership. A 2007 study from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [PDF] reported there were 270 million private firearms in the U.S.
The question is how to keep them away from people who perpetrate crimes like the recent shootings in Aurora, Colo., and in Oak Creek, Wis. That's the tricky part — partially because getting a gun in the U.S. can be fairly easy.
At the Blue Ridge Arsenal in Virginia, sales rep Mark Warner says the process can take only about 25 minutes. You pick any gun, fill out a form and wait for approval.
"If you're a law-abiding citizen and you don't have a criminal record and the computer likes you in Richmond, you're done in 15-25 minutes," he says.
And that's if you buy it in a shop.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says 40 percent of legally sold guns are sold without a background check. That 40 percent includes the guns sold at gun shows or through classified ads, where legal loopholes don't require background checks.
"Every day in our nation, 32 Americans are killed by guns," Gross says.
He argues that a few simple changes — tighter background checks, a ban on certain types of weapons — could all make the difference.
It's been done before. In the early 1990s, the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, or the "Brady Bill," introduced background checks. Then-President Clinton signed it into law in 1993. From 1994 to 2004, the sale of assault weapons was banned.
How To Tackle Crime Rates
But is there a link between gun restrictions and fewer murders?
Paul Barrett, author of a book on the history of the famous Glock handgun, says the answer is no.
"Criminologists have studied it, and the consensus is that those laws simply did not have a statistically meaningful effect on crime rates," he tells Guy Raz, weekends on All Things Considered.
Barrett says making slight changes to existing laws won't bring down the homicide rate. The equation of "more guns equal more crime" just doesn't add up, he says.
"There's a relationship between the presence of guns and the lethality of crime, but there is not a cause-and-effect, simple formula that will solve crime problems by simply regulating, in slightly different ways, how easily you can acquire a gun," he says.
Gun-control advocates point to the shootings in Colorado and Milwaukee as justification for stricter laws. But Barrett argues that's not the nation's biggest gun issue.
"We fixate, understandably, on the aberrational mass-shooting events, but they're actually not our main social problem," he says. "Our main social problem is the overall gun homicide rate."
The Political Calculus
Still, neither the overall homicide rate nor the recent atrocities have spurred real political action. Barrett says President Obama is probably just taking history into account and deciding that "it is not worth the political punishment to tinker with gun laws."
The first lesson would be the presidential election in 2000. Then-candidate Al Gore was targeted by the National Rifle Association in key sates because he had been vice president when Clinton signed the assault-weapons ban.
The result? Gore lost in states he should have won: his home state of Tennessee, Clinton's home state of Arkansas and West Virginia. Barrett says Gore's losses were due "in large part" because of the gun-rights activism.
Another example of political backlash is the 1994 turnover in the House. The Republican sweep in that election followed the enactment of the assault-weapons ban. Barrett says Clinton himself attributed the election at least in large part to the gun laws.
Barrett breaks down the political calculation for like this: "a huge downside risk, a marginal upside potential to please people who are going to vote for you anyway."
"There is just not a lot of popular demand for stricter gun control," he says. "The public opinion polls tell you that, and I think Barack Obama and his advisers can read those polls."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Mitt Romney and his new running mate, Paul Ryan, are in North Carolina today, the second day of a bus tour through swing states. We'll go to the campaign trail in a few moments, and later, a check in on the final events at the Olympics, but first to our cover story today.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
RAZ: And it begins at this shooting range and gun shop, the Blue Ridge Arsenal, in Virginia, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., And there, you will find hundreds of guns, guns mounted on the walls, guns inside display cases, with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Mark Warner, one of the sales reps there, shows us around.
MARK WARNER: Well, over here, we have our assault weapons, AF-15s, Adcor, Smith and Wesson, Sig Sauer.
RAZ: We came here because in recent weeks, some groups opposed to gun restrictions, like the NRA, have pushed a narrative that gun rights in America are under assault. Take this video, for example, circulated by the NRA this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The message to America is stick to your guns and keep your guns. Don't let your government take them away from you.
RAZ: Now, this message resonates with Nathan Hall, who we also met at the Blue Ridge Arsenal. Do you feel like gun rights are under assault in America right now for people like you?
NATHAN HALL: I would have to definitely say absolutely. I don't know. If you bring it down, there's the U.N. treaty thing that they're trying to sign into law, you know, where they want to categorize and catalogue every - possibly every weapon in the U.S. And, you know, they're trying to strip those rights slowly.
RAZ: Now, that U.N. treaty Nathan Hall is referring to has been making the rounds on conservative websites and in ads on cable TV. Georgia Congressman Paul Broun recently posted a video about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL BROUN: Ultimately, the U.N.'s small arms treaty is designed to register, ban and confiscate firearms owned by private citizens like you.
RAZ: The independent group PolitiFact recently looked into that claim, and they determined it was entirely false, that there is no U.N. treaty that would have any impact on gun rights in the U.S. Yet many of these myths persist. Our cover story today: guns: separating fact from fiction.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: In 1990, 80 percent of Americans supported tough restrictions on gun sales. And today, that number is down to 47 percent. Part of the reason has to do with how the debate has been framed - one between those who want to ban all guns and those who want to protect that right. The reality, of course, is far more complex.
There are already 300 million guns in private hands in the U.S., and so private gun ownership is a fact of American life, something unlikely to ever change. The question is how to keep those guns away from people who perpetrate crimes like the recent shootings in Aurora and in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. That's the tricky part, because getting a gun in the U.S. is pretty easy.
And at the Blue Ridge Arsenal, for example, sales rep Mark Warner says you can pick any gun, fill out a form...
WARNER: And if it's approved, you're done in about 25 minutes.
RAZ: So basically, if all goes well, you can be in and out in about 25 minutes.
WARNER: If you're a law-abiding citizen, and you don't have a criminal record, and the computer likes you in Richmond, you're done in 15, 25 minutes.
RAZ: Fifteen to 25 minutes. And that's if you buy it in a shop.
DAN GROSS: Forty percent of the guns sold legally in this country are sold through channels where no background check is done whatsoever.
RAZ: That's Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The number he cites is the number of guns sold at gun shows or through classified ads where legal loopholes don't require background checks.
GROSS: Every day in our nation, 32 Americans are killed by guns.
RAZ: And Dan Gross argues that a few simple changes - things like tighter background checks, a ban on certain types of weapons, assault rifles - that could make all the difference. Now, it's been done before. In the early '90s, the Brady Bill introduced background checks. From 1994 to 2004, the sale of assault weapons was banned. But is there a link between gun restrictions and fewer murders? According to Paul Barrett, author of a book on the history of the famous Glock handgun, the answer is no.
PAUL BARRETT: Criminologists have studied it, and the consensus is that those laws simply did not have a statistically meaningful effect on crime rates. That's a problem for people who want to add to those laws and, at this point, push tougher gun control laws, because they simply can't, with a straight face, cite statistics that say we enacted the assault weapons ban and crime went down because of the assault weapons ban. You can't make the connection.
RAZ: So, is there any link between gun control and lower murder rates?
BARRETT: I think that there are connections between the rate of prevalence of guns in a society and the homicide rate. Guns are far less prevalent, for example, in the United Kingdom. And the United Kingdom has a far, far lower gun homicide rate. In the United Kingdom, the gun homicide rate is below 0.1 per 100,000. In the United States, it's three per 100,000. So 30 or 40 times as high.
And I think there is a pretty safe assumption that is shared by a very wide variety of criminologists that the fact that guns are so much more prevalent and widely available in the United States contributes to our much higher gun homicide rate. And so when you ask would gun control bring down the homicide rate, I don't think so if what you mean is fiddling very, very slightly at the margins with our current laws. If you are asking me whether you could erase all the guns in the United States, would that take down the gun homicide rate, absolutely.
RAZ: How do we explain higher gun murder rates in places where it is difficult to obtain them, like Washington, D.C., or New York or California, where it's more difficult to obtain than, say, Virginia?
BARRETT: Well, that points to the more complex reality that it's not as simple as more guns equals more crime. You can see that in the laboratory of New York where we've had phenomenal and very heartwarming crime reduction, but no change in the regulation of firearm ownership. So there's a relationship between the presence of guns and the lethality of crime, but there is not a cause-and-effect, simple formula that will solve crime problems by simply regulating, in slightly different ways, how easily you can acquire a gun.
RAZ: After the massacre in Aurora and most recently in Milwaukee, opponents of gun control have pointed to massacres in other countries - Norway, Tasmania, even in Germany - where there are very strict gun control laws. Do they have a point?
BARRETT: Well, I think they do and they don't. I mean, we certainly have, by any arithmetic tabulation, you know, a higher rate of these mass shootings. Statistically, they are not significant events. Statistically, every day that one of these horrific shootings takes place on that same day, people are shot and killed with guns under routine circumstances in routine crime. We fixate, understandably, on these aberrational mass shooting events, but they're actually not our main social problem. Our main social problem is the overall gun homicide rate.
RAZ: Why does it seem so tricky for politicians to take on this issue, to try and tighten laws, to just ask basic questions about semiautomatic assault rifles to say, you know, why should those be so easily available? Why is it so tricky to take that on?
BARRETT: I think the simplest reason that our present president, Barack Obama, who is a center-left Democrat, who has made statements that have been recorded, much to his chagrin, that indicate a certain disdain on his part for people who own guns, his famous remark in the 2008 campaign when he talked about gun owners and religious people who bitterly cling to their guns and their religion, a remark that he very much regretted after that.
Why as this president at this particular moment said absolutely nothing and done absolutely nothing to try to increase gun control even in the wake of various horrific mass shootings - Tucson, Milwaukee and so forth - I think the short answer is that he has looked at recent political history, and he has drawn the lesson that it is not worth the political punishment to tinker with gun laws. And the particular experiences he's looking at, I think, are two.
One is the election in 2000, when Al Gore was attacked by the NRA in several key states because he was merely the vice president to Bill Clinton who signed the assault weapons ban. Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000, he lost Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas, and he lost the state of West Virginia, all states that I think there would be a broad consensus that he otherwise should have won in large part because of the gun rights activism. And that was a very dismaying experience to Democrats.
And then there was an earlier incident years earlier in 1994 immediately after the enactment of the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban when the House of Representatives changed control for the first time in about half a century. Bill Clinton is on the record saying that he thinks Democrats lost control of the House and Newt Gingrich and his allies, at least in significant part, because of gun issues. So those are the lessons that Democrats, for better or for worse, have drawn.
RAZ: So there is - you're saying there's almost no political upside to backing more gun restrictions - as a huge downside.
BARRETT: A huge downside risk, a marginal upside potential to please people who are going to vote for you anyway. There is just not a lot of popular demand for stricter gun control. The public opinion polls tell you that. And I think Barack Obama and his advisers can read those polls.
RAZ: Paul Barrett. He's an assisting managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." We contacted the NRA to join our conversation. They declined. The U.S., by the way, has by far the highest gun murder rate in the developed world. In 2008, there were nearly 10,000 gun homicides in this country.
That same year in Britain, a country with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world, just 39 gun murders. If you applied that rate to the U.S., we'd have about 195 gun homicides a year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.