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Why Mass Shootings Don’t Lead to More Gun Control

It’s been one week since the horrific shootings in Newtown. Many questions linger—about the gunman’s mental illness, about his mother’s responsibilities, and, of course, about guns.

The U.S. unfortunately has seen many tragedies like the school shooting in Connecticut. And after these horrific tragedies there is usually a great national outcry about gun control. And then, after the hubbub dies down, either the failure to pass legislation, or the failure of the legislation passed to achieve a meaningful result, disappoints gun control advocates.

The strong judicial trend toward robust support for gun ownership as a civil right is one big reason for that disappointment. A generation ago there was a lot of debate over whether the constitution refers to an individual right to bear guns or to some kind of vaguer and collective idea. It is harder to craft laws these days that will substantially restrict what most federal judges now consider to be the constitutional right of individuals to bear arms.

Another reason has to do with the structure of the American political system, which makes opinion polls very weak guides to political behavior on this issue. The U.S. is divided into pro- and anti-gun states, but the former often have smaller populations than the latter. Compare Alaska, Wyoming and Idaho with New York, California and Illinois. The 2.9 million voters in the first three states have just as many senators as the 70 million in the three larger ones. There are, of course, small states where anti-gun advocacy is strong (Delaware and Rhode Island, for example) and big ones where the pro-gun forces rule (Texas). But on the whole, the Senate setup, strengthened by the power of filibustering minorities to stop laws they don’t like, means that national policy on guns is likely to remain well to the right of blue state public opinion on this issue until and unless people in the pro-gun states change their minds.

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