A semiautomatic handgun and a holster at a North Little Rock, Ark., gun shop Aug. 22, 2013.Danny Johnston/Associated Press
Before the debate over tightening national gun-control laws was rekindled by the latest mass shootings, at the Washington Navy Yard and in Chicago's South Side, a growing number of Americans were questioning the government's stewardship of the right to bear arms, according to a poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that concluded at the end of August.
Asked to size up how the government is doing on protecting a variety of rights and freedoms spelled out in the Bill of Rights and federal law, Americans saw slippage on almost all issues, most dramatically on the matter of gun rights, where the impression of decline turned up everywhere -- among Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old, city dwellers and those in small towns.
Overall, 44 percent of Americans feel the federal government is doing a good job of safeguarding the right to keep and bear arms, down from 57 percent two years earlier. Of course, definitions of "good job" on gun rights diverge; not everyone wants the government to safeguard Second Amendment rights.
Republicans and independents, groups that more frequently embrace Second Amendment rights, were far more likely than Democrats to give the government poor marks for protecting gun rights.
Among Republicans, 36 percent said the government was doing a good job protecting the right to bear arms, down from 51 percent two years ago. That compares with 56 percent of Democrats giving a good rating now, down from 64 percent two years ago. The slide was highest among independents, dropping from 52 percent giving a good rating in 2011 to 25 percent in the latest poll.
In the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting, Americans of all stripes expressed sorrow over the latest deaths. But many opponents of gun control said tighter laws could make things worse, while those who support tighter laws said it was another sign that action is overdue.
Mike Kaplon, an accounting and economics student from Morristown, N.J., said gun-control advocates haven't made a good case that new laws would reduce gun violence. He decided to get active in opposing gun control after last year's mass shooting of first-graders at a school in Newtown, Conn.
"There's always going to be a nut job able to get a gun," said Kaplon, who identifies himself as a Republican-leaning libertarian. "It happens. It's life."
Walden Miller, a 57-year-old Democrat from Louisville, Colo., thinks the government is safeguarding Second Amendment rights a little too much.
"They are protecting the rights quite well," he said with a laugh. "I think there should be more control over the availability and licensing of guns -- which is the opposite."
Laverne Hawkins, 60, a Democratic retiree in Milwaukee who works as baby sitter, was frustrated that President Barack Obama hadn't done more to stanch gun violence.
"I love the president -- don't get me wrong," she said. "But I just don't feel like he's standing up like he should with getting all this violence straightened out."
Obama made a big push for tighter gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, which left 20 elementary schoolchildren and six adults dead, but the legislation fell flat in Congress and has been stalled ever since.
After Monday's shooting at the Navy Yard, the president's spokesman said Obama remained committed to strengthening gun laws. But there was little expectation of movement in Congress.
As the Obama administration advocates stricter regulation, namely a ban on assault rifles like the one used in Newtown and universal background checks for people purchasing guns, the country is witnessing a movement among state legislators to countermand federal laws on gun control.
New York and Connecticut have already broken with federal standards and enacted stricter laws, while on the other end of the spectrum the Missouri legislature fell just a vote short of nullifying a series of gun-control measures.
A Boston University study published on Sept. 12 found a "robust" relationship -- but not a causal link -- between rates of gun ownership and firearm homicide across all 50 states.
Results from the full AP-NORC survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press