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NRA offers compromise on US gun control -

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ELEANOR HALL: Let's go now to the United States where the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, has made its first public response to the weekend school massacre in Newtown.

The NRA says it's prepared to offer what it calls meaningful contributions to the gun control debate that's erupted in the US over the shooting deaths of the 20 children and six teachers.

Some crime experts say they expect the NRA to now back tougher penalties for gun infringements but those same experts say the focus needs to be on restricting gun access rather than imposing penalties.

Tanya Nolan has our report.

TANYA NOLAN: Travis Pratt says America hasn't before seen a massacre of the kind carried out in Connecticut.

As a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, violent crime is his specialty.

TRAVIS PRATT: The fact that any sort of gun control legislation is even being considered right now means that this is a qualitatively different kind of (inaudible).

TANYA NOLAN: Professor Pratt and his colleague Matthew Makarios from the University of Cincinnati authored what's believed to be the first close look at which policies work and which don't in reducing gun violence in America.

TRAVIS PRATT: The kinds of policies that conservatives tend to advocate here in the US are deterrent states. That if the penalties are stiff enough people will be afraid to misbehave with guns and that's just not how, not how people make decisions.

People tend to make decisions according to the circumstances that are immediately available to them, not some abstract notion of whether or not they might get caught and what the punishment for that offence might be.

TANYA NOLAN: Professor Pratt says a more effective way of reducing gun crime is to reduce access to guns, something president Obama says he now actively supports when it comes to semi-automatic assault rifles like the one used in the Connecticut school massacre.

Professor Pratt says any solution must be driven from the top, but he says the strongest finding of his study was that comprehensive community-based law enforcement initiatives performed best at curbing gun violence.

TRAVIS PRATT: It isn't just police stopping people, frisking people and confiscating firearms. That it's something much more, oftentimes schools are involved, it tends to be again I'm getting very comprehensive, and one of the things that this is tapping into is again a broader perspective on what makes good crime control policy.

And what tends to make good crime control policy is recognising that these different spheres of the state aren't necessarily disconnected from one another. So what happens in law enforcement, what happens in health care, what happens in employment, what happens in education, all of that has implications for the rest.

TANYA NOLAN: America's largest gun rights group, the NRA, says it's prepared to make a meaningful contribution to the president's push for meaningful action to curb gun violence.

But if the statistics are anything to go by, gun violence is on the decline in America.

The FBI's own data shows the rate of violent crime and murders has been on the decline for decades.

But gun-related homicide is still much higher compared to other Western countries - in fact nearly 20 times higher on average.

Co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Jon Vernick, says with 31,500 gun related deaths each year, the problem is a big one

JON VERNICK: And when you compare the United States to its sort of peer group of other high income democracies - the UK, Australia, other parts of Europe - what you see are that although our crime rates are not terribly different from one another, what is enormously different is that we have much higher rates of lethal crimes. Our violent crime becomes murder. And the reason is that our violent crime is much more likely to involve guns.

TANYA NOLAN: Jon Vernick says the focus must be on taking high risk guns off high risk people.

JON VERNICK: We need to be thinking about high risk people as well and in particular, how we can do a much better job of ensuring that we know who's high risk and who isn't and that we have the background check system in place in the United States to identify those people before they buy a gun.

TANYA NOLAN: I thought that those background checks were tightened in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre?

JON VERNICK: They really weren't. We have amazingly porous gun laws in the United States. Probably the largest hole in our gun laws is that if one wants to buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer in the United States, then a background check is required.

But if one wants to buy a gun from a private person - your neighbour who happens to have an extra gun - then in the majority of US states no background check is required and about 40 per cent of all guns change hands that way. And that enormous loophole in our gun laws wasn't changed after the terrible Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

TANYA NOLAN: As the White House hints at expanding the debate to mental illness and the cultural issues surrounding mass shootings, California took the first legislative steps to restrict the sale of ammunition.

But many are hoping the corporate response grows even stronger as more companies move to sever their links with gun makers.

ELEANOR HALL: Tanya Nolan reporting.