Is schoolhouse slaughter a tipping point for US gun reform?

Mass shootings at American high schools, colleges, movie theatres and workplaces over the past 15 years have done little to impact public opinion or national policy on gun control in the US.

But the scope of revulsion and outrage over the execution style slaughter of 20 children and six adults by a lone gunman at a Connecticut elementary school has many Americans asking whether the massacre marks a tipping point in the national debate over gun rights.

"We can't tolerate this anymore," US President Barack Obama told mourners at a vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, the site of the mass killing. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."

Obama did not outline any specific policies he might seek to implement, though he told the vigil that "in the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this".

Several high-profile members of the US Congress have publicly voiced support for a new push to tighten restrictions on firearm ownership in the wake of the tragedy as well.

One of those lawmakers, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, famously aired a 2010 campaign ad in which he loaded a rifle and fired a bullet through a piece of paper reading "Cap and Trade Bill", a piece of environmental legislation that he opposed.

Manchin told MSNBC in an interview that as a hunting enthusiast, he supports re-examining laws that allow people access to the types of weapons and ammunition commonly used in these deadly attacks.

"I don't know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting," Manchin, a Democrat who has been praised in the past by the influential National Rifle Association (NRA) for his pro-gun stance, said in the interview.

"I mean, these are things that need to be talked about."

US politicians are famously skittish about pursuing legislation aimed at tightening government control of gun ownership, and a call for gun reform by high-profile elected officials who have received the NRA's stamp of approval-like Manchin-could provide momentum for new legislation, said Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

More important, however, will be sustained grassroots pressure on politicians, said Goss, author of "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America".

"To what extent will the American people actually mobilize in a sustained way to push leaders to take seriously these gun rampages and enact policies of any sort that might reduce their numbers?" Goss said.

A gun control petition on the White House website's "We the People" section has shattered the record for the number of signatures for a proposed initiative since the platform's launch in September 2011, gathering more than 150,000 signatures.

Meaningful reform, however, will likely only come if public pressure on officials can last "more than a news cycle", Goss said.

Respected public opinion research organizations have noted that mass killings in the US in recent years have not sparked such sustained drives.

Despite a string of mass shootings from April 1999 to October 2012, "Americans have, in general, become less likely to say that the country needs stricter gun control laws", Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, wrote on the research center's website.

Constitutional scholar and gun control skeptic Eugene Volokh told RIA Novosti that the mass shooting, like previous analogous crimes, is unlikely to result in stricter gun laws in the US.

The argument that federal laws restricting guns will stem these kinds of attacks is spurious and has repeatedly been rejected by the American public, said Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law.

"The only guide we have for the future is the past," Volokh told RIA Novosti.

"What we see in the past is that people have not much reacted to those kinds of arguments when it comes to translating them into policy."

Gun control advocates may have grounds for optimism, however, given that national lawmakers are not currently facing an election cycle, said Goss.

Gun reform is not an issue politicians are eager to tackle in an election year, she said.

Goss added, however, that getting a significant gun reform bill through the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives could prove difficult.

"The moderate Republicans who used to come over and support gun control measures are an extinct species in the House," Goss said.

"It's really hard for me to see major gun control legislation going through the House in this Congress unless something really dramatic and unexpected happens."

(Carl Schreck writes for RIA Novosti. The views are his own.)

Carl Schreck

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