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Editorial: Gun Control Must Wait in Twin States

Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Gun control advocates in both Vermont and New Hampshire must be discouraged at the failure of measures in their respective legislatures this winter that would have extended background checks, with some exceptions, to private firearm sales. Both bills were sensible attempts to keep guns out of the hands of people who are ineligible to purchase or possess them under federal law: violent felons, domestic abusers and mentally ill individuals who have been determined to pose a risk to themselves and others.

This failure must be particularly disappointing in that opinion polls in both states indicate solid public support for universal background checks. For instance, a poll of 700 Vermonters conducted by VTDigger and the Castleton Polling Institute found that 77 percent indicated they would support a law to require that all gun sales, except those between relatives, be subject to background checks.

But as Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science at Middlebury College, pointed out in relation to the Vermont bill, the intensity of opposition from gun rights advocates trumped broader, but less forceful, public support when it comes to getting the attention of lawmakers.

It must be said as well Second Amendment absolutists — those who believe the constitutional right to bear arms cannot be infringed in any way — appear to be winning the hearts and minds of the American public. The Pew Research Center reported in December that for the first time in more than two decades of surveys, it found more support for gun rights than for gun control: 52 percent said it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while 46 percent said it is more important to control gun ownership. In fact, there has been a decided shift in opinion on this question in the two years following the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. Shortly after that tragedy, the balance of opinion favored gun control.

And it is also true that since President Obama was first elected in 2008, gun sales have surged on fears that he would push to enact new gun restrictions. A Washington Post analysis suggests that the Obama presidency so far has produced a $9 billion windfall for the firearms industry. Gun manufacturers increased production by 31 percent between 2011 and 2012, and despite a cooling off of sales in 2014, current levels are still far above the 2007 mark.

But if prospects for sane regulation appear bleak at the moment, a longer view suggests that gun control advocates may have cause for optimism. According to the most recent General Social Survey, which is considered the gold standard for tracking social trends because of its independent, long-term and comprehensive nature, the percentage of Americans who live in a household where at least one gun is present is the lowest it has ever been — 32 percent. It also found that 22 percent of Americans own a firearm, down from a high of 31 percent in 1985. And only 14 percent of adults under the age of 35 personally own a firearm, compared with 31 percent of those over age 65. In 1980, younger adults were only slightly less likely than older ones to report that they owned a gun.

Moreover, the Pew survey notes that support for gun rights over gun control is far higher among whites (61 percent) than among blacks (34 percent) and Hispanics (25 percent).

The picture that emerges from these different sources is one in which larger numbers of firearms are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people (which could admittedly be scary in its own right), and that those owners tend to be older and whiter. These demographics suggest to us that prevailing attitudes about guns and their regulation may be only a generation away from a decisive shift, as younger people and minorities play a bigger role in determining the country’s future.

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