Robert Spitzer is the author of The Politics of Gun Control, whose 5th edition was published this year. He is Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the political science department at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He spoke to The Globe’s Konrad Yakabuski. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Will Sandy Hook change the political debate on gun control ?
This shooting was uniquely horrific. Witness President Obama’s brief comments on Friday when he had difficulty controlling his emotions. That circumstance could be enough to rouse public opinion and attention in a way that has not occurred with past shootings. And historically, that is often how policy changes occur on this issue. Second, Obama has just come off a convincing re-election win in November. It is a moment for any re-elected president to advance his agenda and shape the national conversation.
Where do Americans stand on gun control ?
Historically, Americans favour stronger gun laws than we have on the books. But in the last decade, public support for stronger gun laws has been declining. Today, support for stronger gun laws is about even with those who oppose changes. But when you ask people about specific gun control measures – such as the purchase of large capacity magazines – most people oppose that. An overwhelming majority of Americans support tightening up [regulations regarding] the ability of people with mental health problems to get guns, which has been a chief characteristic of these mass shootings. So, there is certainly no impediment in public opinion to pursing [gun control].
Haven’t the country and courts been moving away from stricter controls?
We have seen a proliferation of state laws that liberalize concealed carry laws and the adoption of ‘stand your ground’ self-defence laws. It’s only since 2008 that the Supreme Court has changed course and said the Second Amendment allows individuals to have guns for personal protection in the home.
What is the role of the National Rifle Association in all this?
The NRA does best when the matters of interest to it are not receiving public attention, when it’s [acting] behind closed doors. When they have their greatest difficulty is when the public is really focusing on the issue. But the NRA does have an added advantage in that it pretty much has a headlock on the Republican Party these days.
The NRA typically says that stricter gun laws would not make Americans any safer. But wouldn’t an assault-weapons ban reduce the incidence of these mass shootings, thereby making Americans safer?
If you look at aggregate crime statistics, the answer would surely be no. There are about 30,000 gun deaths in the United States every year, about 12,000 of them are gun murders. Add in the 28 people who died on Friday and there is no statistically meaningful change. Such events are still relatively rare, even though too many of them are still occurring. But that doesn’t mean that action doesn’t make a difference. When the assault-weapons ban was in place between 1994 and 2004, there were several studies showing that the use of assault weapons dropped in that period.