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MPR News

The frustrating political calculus on gun control

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Seized guns
Guns seized by police in the Twin Cities.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

After a gunman shot and killed nine people and then shot himself in Roseburg, Ore., last week, President Barack Obama placed blame on America's political class.

"This is a political choice we make to allow this happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction," he said in a national address.

The political calculus on gun control is frustrating for those seeking a legislative solution to keep guns out of the hands of people who perform mass shootings. 

"Name me a member of Congress who was defeated because he or she is too pro-gun," political analyst Ken Rudin challenged MPR News host Kerri Miller.

Rudin noted that many of the Democrats who lost their seats in 1994 had voted for the assault weapons ban. 

Only 2 percent of Americans rank stronger gun laws as their most important issue.

Here are more highlights from Monday's MPR News conversation on politics and guns.

Hot air from Obama?

Rudin reminds us that from 2007 to 2010 Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. The first two years of Obama's administration Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. The number of gun laws passed during that time: zero.

Right after 2012, immediately following shootings of the elementary students at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. Democrats controlled the Senate. The number of gun laws passed at that time: zero. 

Futility as political utility for gun-rights advocates

"We know that in these mass shootings that in most instances the individuals obtained their guns legally," Robert Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, told Miller. "There is this sense of futility which to some extent is encouraged by the gun rights people because people will just assume nothing can be done."

"There is a good reason to believe that a great many things could be done. First of all, if the shooters are obtaining legally, maybe they shouldn't be obtaining them legally," Spitzer added.

A case for background checks

The standard to get a gun in most states is a pretty low bar so long as you aren't a convicted felon and haven't been determined to be mentally unfit by the state.

"One thing we know about mass shooters is that almost invariably they have severe mental health problems and behavioral problems that are well known to their friends, family, co-workers, and their neighbors. That is another part of the story that became abundantly clear with the shooting in Oregon last week," Spitzer said.

Spitzer points to the model used in the state of New York where police conduct the check by talking to people who know the person seeking the gun, including their employment history and use of drugs or alcohol.

"All sorts of red flags would have been raised in Oregon and South Carolina had those two shooters had been subjected to" the New York standard, Spitzer said.