WHY IT MATTERS: Gun control

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Associated Press

Posted on October 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 9 at 10:05 AM

The issue:

Frightening episodes of gun violence have been splayed across front pages with alarming frequency this campaign season: the movie theater killings in Colorado, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin, the gun battle outside the Empire State Building, and more. Guns are used in two-thirds of homicides, according to the FBI. But the murder rate is less than half what it was two decades ago.

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Where they stand:

Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney has had much to say about guns during the campaign, except when prodded by high-profile events such as the Colorado shootings. Obama hasn't pushed gun control measures as president, and Romney says he doesn't think the nation needs new gun laws. Both style themselves as defenders of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Obama has signed laws letting people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak trains. He's voiced support for a renewed ban on assault-type weapons but hasn't tried to get that done. He blames Congress for opposing such measures.

Romney suggested after the Colorado shootings that he favors tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. He said he doubts whether new laws would help. The key, he said, is to identify deranged or distressed people and then "keep them from carrying out terrible acts." It's a big shift in tone from his days as Massachusetts governor, when he vowed to protect the state's "tough gun laws" and signed a ban on assault weapons.

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Why it matters:

Don't expect gun control to be high on the presidential agenda no matter who wins in November. Although Obama is more open to gun ownership restrictions than Romney, neither seems inclined to push it. That's not to say it makes no difference who gets elected when it comes to gun control. Supreme Court appointments could make a big difference.

But it has faded as a political issue. Crime just isn't the public concern it was years ago. And it's getting harder to make the argument that stricter gun laws are needed when violent crime has been decreasing without them.

Although high-profile shootings inevitably stir up talk about tighter gun controls, over time the public has shifted in favor of the right to own guns and away from increased limitations on gun ownership.

In 1990, 78 percent of Americans said laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, and 19 percent said they should remain the same or be loosened, according to a Gallup poll. By the fall of 2004, support for tougher laws had dropped to 54 percent. In last year's sounding, 43 percent said they should be stricter, and 55 percent said they should stay the same or be made more lenient.

Still, odds are good that the next president will have a chance to fill at least one Supreme Court seat, and the current court is narrowly divided on gun-control questions. In a 5-4 vote two years ago, for example, the court held that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, expanding the conservative court's embrace of gun rights. The court left unresolved questions about what kinds of gun-control laws fit comfortably with the Second Amendment.

An Obama appointee could be expected to be friendlier to gun controls than would a Romney nominee.

Obama could decide to push for an assault weapons ban in a second term, when he wouldn't have to worry about re-election repercussions. But it still would be unlikely to advance through a House that is expected to remain firmly in Republican hands.

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