In the wake of what has been described as the second-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history, gun control has once again been thrust to the forefront of public debate.
President Barack Obama called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this” during a press conference following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty-six people had been reported dead by Friday afternoon, 20 of whom, the visibly shaken president said, were “beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10.”
But what steps, if any, Obama, will take next are unclear. The president only publicly discussed gun laws during the recent presidential election at one point during the campaign -- the second debate -- during a summer that saw a slew of mass shootings across the country. In a meandering response, Obama said he supported the reintroduction of the federal assault weapons ban, stating “weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets.”
Gun control reform is notoriously politically unpopular. Gallup reports opposition to stricter gun laws has has steadily increased since 1990, although there are a handful of policies that have retained broad support -- including banning the manufacture and possession of semi-automatic weapons.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004 after 10 years, prohibited the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms, also known as “assault weapons.” Although there have been multiple attempts to renew the ban, a bill has never reached the House floor for a vote.
Democrats briefly had the opportunity to renew the ban following Obama’s inauguration, when Democrats still controlled the House, but the issue was never broached.
Ironically, Connecticut is one of the only states – along with California, Illinois and Massachusetts – with laws regulating assault rifle ownership and sales. Connecticut prohibits any person from possessing a semi-automatic weapon unless it was lawfully possessed before 1994.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention studied the federal ban after its expiration and concluded there was “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearm laws reviewed.” But supporters of the law argue that banning the manufacture in itself dries up the supply of those weapons.
In 2004 the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported assault weapons made up 1.61 percent of guns traced to crime following the expiration of the assault weapons bans, down from 4.82 percent during the five-year period before the law was passed.
While the Second Amendment may give Americans the right to bear arms, there is clearly a connection between ownership and violence. Across homes, cities, states and regions, men and women are at a higher risk of homicide in areas with a higher concentration of firearms, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney briefly reiterated Obama’s support for the federal assault weapons ban on Friday, but then quickly said it wasn’t appropriate to dive into that debate in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.
Several lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have called on the president to take action on gun violence as details continue to emerge about the latest mass shooting.
“If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don’t know when is. How many more Columbines and Newtowns must we live through? I am challenging President Obama, the Congress and the American public to act on our outrage and, finally, do something about this,” Nadler said.