Culture or Control: Guns Spark Intense Debate

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, political leaders and presidential candidates were quick to offer their prayers and condolences.

President Bush said in an impromptu on-camera statement to media that Monday he was "shocked and saddened" by the shootings.

The Senate observed a moment of silence and the House of Representatives quickly followed suit, with Speaker Pelosi saying that the prayers of the Congress were with the students and their families.

Soon, almost all of the 2008 presidential candidates began releasing statements, denouncing the killings and offering their sympathy and prayers.

"As a parent, I am filled with sorrow for the mothers and fathers and loved ones struggling with the sudden, unbearable news," read a statement by Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

The 2008 campaign Web site belonging to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., changed to a homepage of an all-black slate with only a few lines of text in white -- attributed to the senator: "Today, we are a grieving and shocked nation…we will miss them, and we pray for their families and the injured fighting for their lives."

Republican candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had both planned to spend part of their days campaigning in Virginia on Tuesday, but canceled their respective political events because of the shooting.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Atlanta and hold a town hall meeting in South Carolina, also scrapped his campaign day out of respect for the tragedy.

Former Sen. John Edwards turned a planned bluegrass concert and rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday night into a memorial service.

"I don't believe this is the right time for politics," Edwards said before leading a prayer.

Earlier in the day, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth, who lost their 16-year-old son Wade in a single-car accident just over 10 years ago, issued a written statement expressing their "heartbreak" and reciting a Methodist hymn that they said gave them solace "in a time such as this."

Politics, if even for a day, seemed far from the minds of almost every presidential candidate. But there's no question the issues surrounding the tragedy at Virginia Tech, particularly the controversial topic of gun control, could soon become a part of the national political dialogue.

Tragedy Often Sparks Debate, Not Legislation

Gun control advocates wasted little time kick-starting that age-old debate, quickly turning from solemn observance of grief to a moment of action.

"It is long overdue for us to take some common-sense actions to prevent tragedies like this from continuing to occur," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Pointing to the Littleton, Colo., school shootings in 1999 and the Amish schoolhouse shooting six months ago, Helmke said the United States has done nothing since these incidents to end gun violence in our schools and communities.

"If anything, we've made it easier to access powerful weapons," he said.

Indeed, public opinion polls have consistently shown over the last decade that a majority of Americans, between 61 and 63 percent, favor stricter gun control laws.

But while gun control in general is popular, banning handguns entirely is not. Better enforcement is preferred to new legislation and three-quarters of Americans believe the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to own guns, according to ABC News polling director Gary Langer.

Perhaps more telling, in the wake of notorious incidents such as the murder of five girls in a Amish schoolhouse last year -- the nation's third deadly school shooting in a week -- there was little to no impact on the public's views on gun control.

In older polls, Americans have placed more blame for gun violence on the influences of upbringing and culture than the availability of guns.

Langer said then-Gov. Bush reflected this thinking in the second presidential debate in the 2000 election campaign, when he called gun crime more "a matter of culture" than one to be addressed through legislation -- "a culture that somewhere along the line we've begun to disrespect life."

Gun control has been largely absent from the congressional agenda, even though Democrats now find themselves in control, and most Democrats vying for the 2008 presidential nomination have not been talking up the issue.

In the wake of Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane thinks Democrats might return to the gun issue even though he believes they have to do it in a way that does not reinforce the notion that the Democratic candidates are "out of touch elitists."

"Technology allows folks to redefine the issue at some level so it pole vaults over the guns vs. no guns Second Amendment fault line," Lehane told ABC News. "Thus, instead of talking about registration the focus should be on safety reforms like locks and bullet tracing."

Lehane also thinks Democrats are well served by "going on the offensive" and talking about Republicans as being "anti-hunter" by not protecting open spaces for hunting and fishing as Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., have done in their home states.

But, as Lehane and many other Democratic strategists know, gun control has not been a winning issue for their party.

Election 2000 Marked Turning Point in Gun Battle

Many see the 2000 presidential election as a political turning point in the long-standing battle over gun control.

Eight years ago, in the wake of the Columbine shootings, Lehane, then Vice President Al Gore's spokesman, relished a fight between Bush and Gore on gun control.

"We always like comparisons to Republicans on this issue," Lehane told The New York Times in July 1999. "If the holster fits, wear it."

In the wake of the Columbine shootings, Gore went far beyond anything President Clinton had proposed and called for photo licenses for all new handgun owners and banning cheap handguns.

In a thinly veiled swipe at then-Gov. Bush, Gore said in the run up to the 2000 election, "Some want more concealed weapons -- but they can't conceal the fact that they're just doing the NRA's bidding."

But by the time the dust had cleared on the 2000 presidential race, Democrats were singing a very different tune. Many Democrats believe guns were one of several issues that saw white men in rural states flock to Bush over Gore.

Lehane disputes that Gore's gun stance was responsible for tipping the 2000 election to Bush. But other Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, think that the gun issue played a key role in putting states like West Virginia, Montana, and even Gore's home state of Tennessee out of reach.

Asked what the Democrats should do on gun control at a post-2000 campaign Harvard seminar, the AFL-CIO's Steve Rosenthal couldn't be more blunt.

"Shut the hell up," he said.

Since Rosenthal offered that advice, Democrats have largely heeded it.

Gun control advocates lost a major political battle in September 2004, when the Republican-led Congress let a 10-year-old ban on 19 types of assault weapons expire.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, left the campaign trail to cast a vote against letting the assault weapons ban expire. But he did not make the decision of the Republican-led Congress to let a 10-year-old ban on 19 types of assault weapons expire a focal point of his campaign.

In an effort to highlight his support for the Second Amendment, Kerry went hunting on three separate occassions during the nomination fight and general election. The effort had little impact, however, drawing mostly scourn from the N.R.A. and other gun advocate organizations that supported the Democrat's Republican rival.

Anti-gun advocates say politicians have lost the political will to legislate gun control.

Currently, there is no national policy on gun control. In Virginia, home of the Virginia Tech shooting, the state legislature passed a law a few years ago that restricted gun purchases -- to a maximum of one per week.

Next door, in Washington, D.C., a law was passed banning the possession of all guns. However, a recent federal court ruling ruled that ban violates Americans' Second Amendment to the Constitution -- the right to bear arms.

"If you're going to give people an almost unlimited freedom to purchase guns, then our freedom, people who want open doors, open access, is going to be infringed," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, on the digital channel ABC News Now.

If history holds, the nation's deadliest massacre in history will likely have little impact on public policy but could certainly influence the debate in 2008.

2008 Contenders Stake Out Positions

In Nashville on Monday, Edwards told The Associated Press that he supports gun control measures such as background checks at gun shows, but stressed his support of the right to own a gun as part of his rural America plan.

Saying he grew up hunting, Edwards said, "I think it's important for us to respect the right to own firearms and to use them for protection," he said. "I don't think, though, that it means anybody needs an AK-47 to hunt."

In his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama said, "I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturer's lobby."

In July 2005, Clinton voted against a bill that made it illegal for crime victims to sue gun manufacturers. The bill passed by an overwhelming majority in the Senate.

Republicans have traditionally been the Second Amendment torch-carriers.

The NRA gave 88 percent of its campaign contributions to Republicans in the 2004 presidential election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2000, the NRA devoted 94 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

However, Second-Amendment purists may find fault with the current crop of leading GOP presidential candidates.

McCain twice co-sponsored legislation to regulate gun shows more strictly but he did vote to allow a ban on lawsuits against gun manufacturers for gun violence.

As mayor of New York City, Giuliani strongly supported gun control, endorsing a lawsuit brought by the city against gun makers who, he said, were "deliberately manufacturing many more firearms than can be bought for legitimate purposes."

However, as a 2008 republican presidential candidate, Giuliani has made a states' rights argument, suggesting that restrictive gun laws suitable for larger metropolises may not be necessary in rural communities.

This August Romney obtained his first NRA membership.

However, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney pledged to uphold the state's gun control laws. He has previously supporting a ban on some assault weapons and federal waiting periods before a gun purchase.

Romney got into trouble this month when, during a question-and-answer session in New Hampshire, he told a man wearing a NRA cap, "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life."

It was later reported that Romney had only been on two hunting trips, prompting the candidate to explain, "I'm by no means a big game hunter. I'm more Jed Clampett than Teddy Roosevelt."

Critics say it's a sign that Republicans feel the need to adjust their positions in order to attract the NRA. Strategists -- recent election history -- seem to suggest it's a political reality.