If the last couple of weeks are any guide, America’s national culture of the gun is evolving in complicated and nuanced ways in the new era sparked by the deadly mass-shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
It now appears likely that Congress will pass only the most modest legislation, perhaps making it slightly more difficult for people suffering a mental illness to buy a gun, and perhaps toughening the penalties for illegal gun trafficking.
The NRA and its supporters have rallied the vast majority of Republicans — and a fair number of Democrats — to oppose a more aggressive ban on assault rifles, a more comprehensive registry of firearm owners, or new restrictions on gun show sales.
But at the same time, a growing number of states are moving rapidly to place strict new limits on firearm ownership, led by a sweeping assault rifle ban in New York and by a wave of dozens of gun control bills that are expected to pass in California.
Late last month, a gun control advocate won a special election for a congressional seat in Illinois, where an assault rifle ban is moving through the state legislature.
Meanwhile, the courts — including the conservative-leaning US Supreme Court — have offered a complicated set of legal rulings that allow states to regulate firearms, so long as restrictions and guidelines don’t reach a certain threshhold.
(Exactly where that threshold lies, and which state laws violate the Constitution’s 2nd amendment, will be tested by a wave of additional court cases that will follow as new gun control measures are passed.)
These developments come as studies show that gun ownership continues to decline in America, down from 50 percent of households around 1970s to somewhere between 35 and 43 percent today.
So what does this all add up to?
Clearly, firearms are an important form of cultural and political expression for millions of Americans, many of whom see guns as necessary equipment for protecting themselves and their families.
And it appears that no consensus has formed nationally that would lead to sweeping Federal measures. Even modest baby-step gun control efforts may, in fact, be DOA.
But on a state-by-state and city-by-city level, it appears that gun regulation and even fairly sharp restrictions on gun ownership will be a growing fact of life for a big chunk of the nation.
The states with the toughest gun control measures either now on the books or looking very likely to pass, post-Sandy Hook, are home to about 25% of the nation’s population.
This is a situation that isn’t likely to make anyone happy.
Gun advocates think the state laws are an encroachment on their civil liberties. Gun control groups think it will be much harder to regulate guns effectively on a piecemeal basis.
In the near-to-mid-term, however, we may find ourselves living with yet another deep fault line running between more progressive “blue” states — which tend to be more urban — and more tradition-minded “red” states with larger rural populations.
States like California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York may see fairly strict gun control become the new normal, and gun ownership continuing to decline.
Meanwhile, states like Florida, Kansas, North Dakota and Texas may continue to evolve toward an even more freewheeling, unfettered approach to guns — even more “military” style firearms — as has been the trend in recent years.
One final wrinkle, however, is the fierce internal division that exists within many of these states.
In urban Chicago and New York City, gun control is hugely popular. In rural downstate Illinois and upstate New York, much less so.
So while the states move in different directions on firearms, experimenting with different rules and different approaches, the fault lines in the gun rights debate remain very close to home.
Tags: gun control