WASHINGTON - Controlling access to guns would appear, on its face, the simple answer to preventing public massacres like the movie-theatre tragedy in Colorado. In the United States, where polls show increasing support the right to own guns of all kinds and to use them for protection, the argument goes far deeper.
The gunman who killed at least 12 movie goers at a premier showing of the latest "Batman" blockbuster and wounded 58 others was armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and at least one pistol. For 10 years, ending in 2004, assault rifles — a weapon designed for military combat — were banned from public sale.
That ban, voted into law during the President Bill Clinton administration, is blamed by many Democrats as responsible for the big 1994 Republican victory in Congress, a vote that returned Republicans to control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
True or not, controlling gun access traditionally has been an issue that separates Republicans and Democrats. According to a Pew Research Center poll in April, 72 per cent of Republicans surveyed supported less control on the purchase of weapons. Among Democrats just 27 per cent agreed. Interestingly, 55 per cent independents — those polled who do not identify with either party — sided with Republicans.
The feelings of Democrats on guns remained virtually unchanged from 1993, but had risen sharply — from 45 per cent to 72 per cent — among Republicans; from 38 per cent to 55 per cent among independents.
Support for gun control has fallen off dramatically among Republicans and independents despite a series of terrifying mass shootings.
They include the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School not far from the theatre shooting early Saturday. Two senior students carried out the shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher.
Five years ago, a deranged shooter shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech University.
Even more recently, in January 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot during a public meeting held in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Arizona. Six people died.
Regardless, gun control advocates appear powerless in the face of public opinion and the muscular National Rifle Association, the lobbyist group that has the money and reach to defeat candidates for office who promise or have worked to cut access to guns.
Supporters of lax rules on purchasing guns and ammunition cite the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say that guarantees citizens' right to be armed. And President Barack Obama, who faces an extraordinarily tough race with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, pledged to safeguard the Second Amendment in the first White House response to the latest massacre.
Given the close race for president in November, neither candidate will want to loudly raise gun control issues. Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor and author of a book on gun politics, said violent crime has been declining in recent years and, "It becomes increasingly difficult to make the argument that we need stricter gun control laws."
FBI statistics show violent crime has fallen nationwide over the past 4 1/2 years.
In addition, Wilson said in some regions, gun control "can be a winning issue for Democrats. But nationally, it's a loser ... and they have figured that out." Attempts to emphasize the issue will "really motivate the opposition. And in a political campaign, nobody wants to do that," he said.
At its core, Wilson said, the issue divides rural voters from urban voters.
In the current election cycle, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has made 88 per cent of its political donations to Republicans, and 12 per cent to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.org, the Web site that follows money in politics. The disparity obscures that the organization consistently supports some Democrats, a strategy that allows it to retain influence in both parties.
It also reported spending $2.9 million on lobbying last year.
Its power was on display in 2010 when majority Democrats in the House of Representatives sidetracked legislation giving the District of Columbia a voting representative in the lower legislative chamber. Republicans had vowed to add an NRA-backed provision invalidating a city ban on handgun possession as the price for passage, and there was little doubt it had the votes to prevail.
Later in the year, the NRA objected to legislation to require groups airing political advertising to disclose donors. Fearing the fallout, enough rank and file Democrats demanded changes that the leadership had to revise the bill. A revised bill, granting the NRA and other large organizations an exemption, eventually passed.
Obama won the White House despite strong opposition from the NRA.
As a senator from Illinois and state lawmaker before that, he was a strong supporter of gun control.
Following last year's killing of six people and the wounding of Rep. Giffords, Obama called for steps to "keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place."
He advanced no legislative proposals then, and on Friday, spokesman Jay Carney said, "The president believes that we need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights of Americans, while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get them."
Obama is not alone.
In a losing Senate campaign in Massachusetts in 1994, Romney said, "I don't line up with the NRA." A decade later, as governor, he signed legislation making a state assault weapons ban permanent.
This year, bidding for support at the NRA convention, he said: "We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners."
Associated Press writers Nancy Benac and David Espo contributed.