Tucson Tragedy: Is Gun Control a Dead Issue?

You might think attacks like the one in Tucson would lead to tougher gun restrictions. But you'd be dead wrong

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Illustration by Thomas Miller for TIME; Gun: Getty Images

Like them or not, guns are as American as covered wagons and the infield-fly rule. The revolutionaries and pioneers who forged the nation and peopled its wilderness really did cling to their guns as tenaciously as they clung to their religion. And while modern cosmopolitans may be shocked by the gun violence in this country — the worst among wealthy nations by far — well, that's an American tradition too.

Gun control is not. The mayhem in Tucson has revived a debate over America's gun culture that resurfaces every time some lunatic overexercises his right to bear arms. How could Jared Loughner be considered too dangerous to attend community college but not too dangerous to buy a Glock? Why are we allowed to pack heat at a Safeway when we can't pack shampoo in our carry-ons? Does the Second Amendment really protect our right to a magazine that holds 30 bullets? It's a necessary debate, but in the political arena, at least, the results are consistently lopsided. As National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre proclaimed two years ago, the guys with the guns make the rules.

Arizona, with its Old West heritage, has been at the forefront of the gun-rights movement. Last year, it passed a law making it the third state — after predominantly rural Vermont and Alaska — to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Another law allows Arizonans to carry guns in bars, as long as they're not drinking. The vast majority of the state's politicians — including Loughner's primary target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat and gun owner — are strong Second Amendment supporters. Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican and gun owner, points out that Arizona has a much lower gun-violence rate than Washington, D.C., which has much more restrictive gun laws. "Criminals always prefer unarmed victims," Franks says. There have been no reports out of Arizona of any credible push for new gun restrictions; in fact, several reports show citizens are flocking to gun shops to increase their firepower.

Unfortunately, the gun-rights vision of well-armed citizens shooting down an outlaw like Loughner midrampage did not come true in this case. Nationally, less than 1% of all gun deaths involve self-defense; the rest are homicides, suicides and accidents. In a study of 23 high-income countries, the U.S. had 80% of the gun deaths, along with a gun homicide rate nearly 20 times higher than the rest of the sample. Still, the gun-control movement has gotten little political traction outside selected major cities, and all but three states have laws that invalidate local gun restrictions. According to the NRA, 25 states have adopted "your home is your castle" laws that give homeowners wide latitude to shoot people on their property without fear of prosecution, and only 10 states prohibit or severely restrict the carrying of firearms in public.

In recent years, despite periodic spasms of attention after mass killings like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech, gun control has made no headway at the federal level either. It's telling that a progressive Chicago Democrat like President Obama — a longtime gun-control advocate whose election inspired fervent warnings about Big Government's confiscating firearms — has carefully avoided the topic in the White House. He even signed two laws that included provisions expanding gun access, one in national parks and one on Amtrak trains. If he objected to the provisions, he kept his objections to himself. A Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence report gave Obama an F for leadership on gun control. "We haven't seen a lot of political courage on this issue," says Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Republicans march in lockstep with the NRA, and Democrats are scared to death."

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