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When will US change gun laws?

FEW issues polarise American public and political opinion more than the vexed question of gun laws.

This weekend, as the United States comes to terms with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the calls for what President Barack Obama has called "meaningful action" over gun control have become more clarion than ever. Twenty children and six adults have become the latest victims of firearms violence that have prompted many across the US to say enough is enough and that reform of the country's gun laws is now long overdue.

"Too soon to speak out about a gun-crazy nation? No, too late. At least 31 school shootings since Columbine," Michael Moore, the director of Bowling For Columbine, tweeted yesterday. It was Moore's 2002 documentary that explored America's long and troubled relationship with guns in the wake of that Colorado school massacre in 1999 when 12 students and a teacher were shot dead.

Many across America now agree with Moore that the best way to honour those killed in Newtown is to demand a dramatic shift in the law, and for that they are to be applauded. But America's relationship with the gun is not as straightforward as that. With the right to bear arms enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and an increasingly strong gun lobby in the National Rifle Association, the unpalatable fact remains that the percentage of Americans who want tighter restrictions is at an all-time low.

In the majority of surveys, currently less than 50% want tougher laws, while almost three-quarters of US citizens – 73% – still believe the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the right to own guns.

In light of such facts, the question of whether Americans can – as Obama insists – "come together - regardless of the politics" over gun control remains a tall order. After the Columbine shootings there was an outpouring of concern and those wanting new gun control measures spiked by about five to 10 percentage points. Following Newtown, it is reasonable to expect a similar shift in public opinion in a country where weapons of many kinds are readily available to buy with just a driver's licence as proof of identity.

If real progress is to be made over gun control in the US, then rather that going head-to-head with the pro-gun lobby as has been the tendency in the past, legislators should build upon the solid public support they already have in a number of areas relating to gun law.

In that regard, US polls also reveal that not all is bad news. As many as 76% of Americans want laws "requiring gun owners to register their guns with the local government", and many insist on much tighter controls over the sale and possession of automatic weapons or assault rifles.

Auspicious is the last word one would associate with the terrible events of the last few days in the quiet New England community of Newtown, Connecticut. But if ever there was moment for America to pause, reflect and ultimately legislate more effectively, this is it.

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