(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
WASHINGTON, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Is America, land of shooting massacres in schools and public places, slowly falling out of love with guns?
The answer is yes, and it runs counter to popular perceptions of the United States as a country where most citizens are armed to the teeth and believe it is every American's inalienable right to buy an AK 47-style assault rifle with the minimum of bureaucratic paperwork.
But in fact, gun ownership in the United States has been declining steadily over more than three decades, relegating gun owners to minority status.
At the same time, support for stricter gun controls has been growing steadily and those in favour make up a majority.
This is a little-reported phenomenon but the trend is shown clearly by statistics compiled by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which has been tracking gun ownership and attitudes on firearms since 1972, the longest-running survey on the subject in the United States.
The number of households with guns dropped from a high of 54 percent in 1977 to 34.5 percent in 2006, according to NORC, and the percentage of Americans who reported personally owning a gun has shrunk to just under 22 percent.
So, by the rules of democratic play, one might assume that the majority would have major influence on legislation. But that's not how it works, thanks to the enormous influence of the gun lobby.
The long-term decline monitored by the Chicago survey has buoyed proponents of tighter gun controls. "America's gun culture is fading," says Josh Sugarmann, who heads the Washington-based Violence Policy Center.
According to Sugarmann, those keeping the culture alive and those most vocal in resisting tighter regulations are white, middle-aged men whose enthusiasm for firearms, hunting and shooting is not shared by younger Americans.
Yet, at the moment it's difficult to imagine the U.S. without its gun culture.
But then, who could have imagined France with a ban on smoking in public places, Germany with speed limits on almost half its autobahns, or a black man as a serious contender in this year's presidential elections in the United States?
To what extent gun ownership will continue to shrink depends, at least in part, on a decision by the U.S. Supreme court expected this summer. The court will rule on one of the most acrimonious disputes in the United States: do Americans have the constitutional right to own and bear arms?
GUN RAMPAGES PART OF LIFE
At the heart of the long-running debate, argued with more passion than almost any other, is the meaning of the U.S. constitution's second amendment.
Written 219 years ago, it says: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
A string of lower court rulings over several decades held that the amendment meant to guarantee the collective right of state militias, not individual citizens. Such rulings have had limited impact: gun regulations vary from state to state and in most, weapons are easy to buy and legal to keep.
There are a few exceptions: handguns are illegal in Chicago and in Washington, where a court ruled in December that its total ban violated the constitution. That is the case the Supreme Court will take up this year.
No matter how it rules, the court's decision is unlikely to make much immediate difference to the mass shootings by unhinged citizens that have become part of American life.
Gun rampages happen with such numbing regularity -- on average one every three weeks in 2007 -- that they barely make news unless the death toll climbs into double digits, as happened at the Virginia Tech university. There, a student with mental problems killed 32 of his peers and himself.
President George W. Bush this week signed into law a bill meant to prevent people with a record of mental disease from buying weapons.
Virginia Tech was the worst school shooting in U.S. history and rekindled the debate over the easy availability of guns in America. There are more private firearms in the United States than anywhere else in the world -- at least 200 million.
While that arsenal has been growing every year, the proportion of U.S. households where guns are held has been shrinking. In other words: Fewer people have more guns.
One estimate, by the National Police Foundation, says that 10 percent of the country's adults own roughly three quarters of all firearms.
PREVENTION, NOT CURE
That is the hard core, which counts on the gun lobby, chief of all the National Rifle Association (NRA), to throttle attempts to impose restrictions on the sale of firearms.
The NRA, a group that claims some 3 million members, calls itself "America's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights" and backs candidates for political office on their stand on one issue -- gun ownership -- regardless of party affiliation.
Politicians tend to pander to the NRA, some more shamelessly than others. One of the Republican candidates for the 2008 presidential race, Mitt Romney, went so far as to falsely claim that he was a lifelong hunter and had received an official NRA endorsement in 2002.
Small wonder, then, that the debates following every shooting massacre tend to focus not on the easy availability of guns but on preventive security measures.
Metal detectors at the entrances of shopping malls, for example. Or bullet-proof backpacks. They were developed in the wake of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where two teenagers killed 12 students and teachers and then themselves.
The Columbine-inspired backpacks went on sale in August and have sold briskly. "Sales picked up considerably in the Christmas period," said Mike Pelonzi, one of the two men -- both fathers -- who designed and market them. "Our market is expanding." (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters com) (Editing by Sean Maguire)
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