Why do mass shootings keep happening in the US? What does the Second Amendment actually mean? Who are the NRA? And where is gun regulation reform at today?
Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” President Joe Biden asked America this week. Hours earlier, an 18-year-old gunman had shot his grandmother in the head and stormed into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, wearing body armour and clutching a military-style assault rifle. Barricaded inside a classroom for almost an hour, he murdered 19 children and two teachers before police shot him dead.
As Biden addressed the nation, he spoke of the pain of losing a child. But his anger broke through too. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” He asked. “When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?”
The same questions were asked after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a decade earlier, after Columbine about a decade before that – and just 10 days before this week’s massacre in Uvalde, when 10 black shoppers were murdered in a racist rampage at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
So far in 2022 there have been more mass shootings than days in the year. And yet, every time these tragedies hit the news cycle, the same dance plays out in Washington. There are thoughts and prayers for the victims, anger at the stalled state of gun regulation from liberals and finger-pointing elsewhere from conservatives. Recently, a hopelessness has crept in too. Why is this massacre not enough to change things?
Most Americans support the main priorities of gun-control advocates, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. Experts say the inaction is caused by the nation’s increasingly partisan politics and a powerful gun lobby that has managed to turn the gun debate into a culture war, while also expanding the meaning of the Second Amendment, that much-cited right to bear arms in the US Constitution. Now, another looming decision from the Supreme Court could extend US gun rights even further.
So why does America have a gun crisis – and why can’t it seem to fix it?
Credit:Artwork Monique Westermann/Getty Images
How bad is America’s gun problem?
The massacre in Uvalde is America’s 27th school shooting so far this year but the deadliest since Sandy Hook in 2012, when 20 children and six staff were murdered at a Connecticut elementary school. In the decade after Sandy Hook, there have been thousands more mass shootings in America – a mass shooting being categorised by the FBI as when four or more people are shot. Before the pandemic, there was about one a day on average in the US – more than 300 a year. That’s far more than any other country in the world, making them an American phenomenon. In 2020, US mass shootings climbed even higher and then spiked again in 2021 at 692.
Australia, by contrast, has had only one mass shootings – a deadly rampage through Darwin in 2019 – since introducing sweeping gun controls following the Port Arthur massacre 26 years ago.
In the US, unlike in other countries, guns account for the bulk of all homicides as well as suicides. In fact, even adjusted for its large population, America has the worst gun violence rate in the developed world. The victims of fatal shootings are disproportionately black men. And, in 2020, guns for the first time overtook car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children and teens.
Those against gun regulation in the US argue that mental health is the real issue at play behind these grim statistics. But while access to mental health care is a problem in America, as it is in many countries, no one argues that the US has a monopoly on people likely to commit mass murder.
What it does have more of is guns. The US is the only country in the world where guns outnumber people, with an estimated 393.3 million firearms – that’s 120.48 per 100 people (up from 88 per 100 in 2011). It’s also one of the few countries with a constitutional right to bear arms – and comparatively loose gun regulation.
Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Peter Doherty, who is a dual Australian and US citizen and saw the toll of gun violence living in Philadelphia, says of the latest shooter: “This boy was bullied, sure, but kids are bullied everywhere. This only happens like this, this often, in America.”
Research has repeatedly found that higher gun ownership correlates strongly with more gun deaths, just as more gun regulation leads to less. In America, mass shooting deaths dipped when a ban on assault weapons was in force (pushed through by Biden in 1994 when he was serving in the Clinton administration). But the ban was allowed to lapse after a decade, and deaths climbed again soon after – as assault weapons, such as the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle the gunman used in the Uvalde shooting, became more popular.
Mass shootings are often followed by spikes in gun sales – last year saw a surge in both. Texas-based professor of law Eric Ruben says: “People think [buying a gun] keeps them safer because everyone has a gun now.”
The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, goes the line from conservatives. But Ruben says you only have to look at the two most recent shootings in the news: in both cases, armed guards or police were unable to stop the shooter.
Soldiers with their muskets during the American Revolutionary War.Credit:Getty Images
What is it with Americans and guns?
It’s not just Republicans in the south who love guns. Ruben, who grew up in upstate New York where there is also a gun culture, says guns are deeply embedded in the American psyche and tradition. “If you go all the way back to the founding, there was a law on the books requiring white men aged 18 to 45 to have a musket in good working order so they could muster for the militia.
“People grew up around guns, hunting with their dad,” says Ruben. “It can be an important part of people’s identity.”
“It’s John Wayne, it’s Rambo,” says Doherty. “It’s the mythology of the pioneering America: you make your own way.”
Here’s where guns come into the Constitution, the supreme law of the US. The Second Amendment reads: “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.”
When the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1791, Ruben says, the founding fathers weren’t thinking about protecting themselves from criminals but from tyrants. Americans weren’t given their freedom – they fought for it, throwing off British rule through revolution (after the Brits tried to disarm parts of the American colonies, no less). As such, the original Articles of Federation had not even allowed America’s new government to raise a standing army or to call up the militias. The new Constitution did, but the Second Amendment was added to ensure a militia would remain among the people.
Because, as Ruben explains, “there was a fear amid this centralising of federal power that they’d return to the tyrannical government they’d just fought against”.
To some gun-rights activists, freedom begins and ends with the Second Amendment and so no regulation on guns, however small, can be tolerated.
But in recent decades, there’s been a shift away from keeping guns for hunting and stopping the occasional tyrant, to owning them for self-defence, Ruben says. And that shift didn’t happen by accident.
How has the Second Amendment evolved?
For 200 years, the Second Amendment sat unchallenged by the courts. But by the ’90s, America’s main gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), was campaigning to expand its meaning from the right to arms for the defence of a free state to the right to defend yourself and your property.
More and more scholarship, much of it funded by gun lobbies, built up this case, says Ruben, and by the 2000s “most Americans believed the Second Amendment gave them a right to self-defence”. Former conservative Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger was among those who railed against this shift as a misunderstanding of the Constitution, calling it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud’, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”.
But in 2008, in the case of the District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment did indeed give a right to bear arms for individual self-defence, striking down a ban on handguns in DC. (Research out of Harvard has found that victims use guns in self-defence in less than one per cent of contact crimes.)
Since then, a slew of states across the country have wound back their gun regulation, including Texas, the site of the latest school massacre and America’s number one mass-shooting hotspot. In some states, it’s easier for an 18-year-old to get a gun than a driver’s licence, and even attempts to stop those on terrorism watch lists getting guns have failed.
At least 25 states also have “stand your ground” laws, sometimes known as “shoot first laws”, which allow someone to use deadly force where they reasonably believe it’s necessary to avoid being harmed.
Now, another gun-rights challenge is before the Supreme Court, this time against laws in New York requiring proper cause to carry a handgun in public. The ruling later this year could expand the Second Amendment even further, and tear down a swathe of gun laws still standing, mostly in Democrat-held states. After the Trump administration stacked the Supreme Court with a conservative majority, experts say it’s now open season for these challenges.
US vice-president Joe Biden looks on as president Barack Obama wipes away a tear during remarks on gun control in 2016. Behind them are victims of shootings or victims’ relatives.Credit:Getty Images
Who is the NRA?
With nearly five million members, the NRA is still one of the most powerful lobbies in America. But when it formed in 1871, it was more Boy Scouts than political machine, focused on sports shooting and gun safety, even helping draft gun regulations and backing restrictions such as after the 1963 assassination of president John Kennedy.
That all changed in 1977 when a dramatic coup at the NRA’s national convention ousted the executive in favour of a hard-right faction. Since then, it has politicised “the right to bear arms” to the point where Republicans will oppose even tiny increases in regulation in order to avoid being labelled a “gun-grabbing socialist”.
The NRA creates infamous scorecards on politicians according to their record on “defending gun rights”, and has been known to help finance and organise campaigns against those to whom it gives a poor grade. “They pick off people one by one,” says Doherty. “It goes to the flaws in the US political system. It’s all about money, donations. It’s poisoned by it.”
In the past few decades, funding for pro-gun campaigning has vastly outstripped gun safety causes (though that has started to even out after Sandy Hook). But Ruben says it’s not just money that makes the NRA formidable. Of late, the group has been hit by bankruptcy and scandal – New York’s attorney-general has even filed a lawsuit to dissolve it over allegations it was involved in “illegal conduct” such as siphoning funds into the pockets of senior leadership.
But the turmoil has not dented the gun lobby’s hold on the Republican Party. Gun rights are baked into the party’s DNA at this point, Ruben says, and there are smaller gun groups to fill any NRA void. “The NRA is certainly weakened right now. But it still has a very committed membership of single-issue voters and often in the primaries [as Republicans] compete against each other, there’s a race to the right on guns.”
The annual NRA convention will go ahead as planned in Texas this weekend, even as the state reels from the Uvalde shooting. Governor Greg Abbott will address the conference by video but fellow Republicans such as former president Donald Trump and senator Ted Cruz will be centre stage.
What gun reform has been tried in the past?
After Sandy Hook, then vice-president Biden put a series of gun reforms before Congress to expand background checks and reintroduce the assault weapons ban. It was a watered-down version of what had initially been proposed, co-authored by Democrats and Republicans, and hailed as a “common sense” package just weak enough to slip past the gun lobby. It didn’t.
Fearful of a backlash from the NRA at midterm elections, four Democrats and several moderate Republicans got cold feet, leaving the legislation six votes shy of the 60 it needed. Patricia Maisch, a survivor of a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, shouted “Shame on you!” from the public gallery as the bill failed.
Experts say it is not only the fear of the gun lobby that works against legislation but modern partisan politics, where the Senate can stymie any government agenda through the filibuster rule. Many despaired that the Sandy Hook failure was proof nothing would break the Republican blockade against gun regulation.
But Chris Murphy, who was the senator representing Sandy Hook at the time, said this week he still has hope things could change.
Children pay their respects at a memorial site for the victims killed in this week’s elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday.Credit:AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
How likely is gun reform now?
Biden has passed gun regulation before, helping establish background checks in 1993 and the now-lapsed ban on assault rifles. At the 2020 election, he promised gun safety laws and many of his Democrat colleagues, including army veterans, have been elected in swing seats with similar platforms. Two modest bills have already passed the House now the Democrats have a majority again: one expanding background checks and the other closing the “gun show” loophole that allows for private and online sales without checks.
But in the Senate, where the Democrats and Republicans hold 50 seats each, they will need at least 10 votes from the other side to pass legislation. And even after the Uvalde shooting, Republicans blocked a domestic terrorism bill that had cleared the House quickly last week in response to the Buffalo massacre.
International weapons regulation expert Rebecca Peters says that, given the NRA is weakened by scandal, now is the moment for politicians once cowed by the lobby “to put on their big boy pants … and stand up”.
While Ruben admits he’s still cynical about meaningful gun regulation at a federal level, he says it’s worth noting that many states run by Democrats such as New York and California have tightened gun laws after Sandy Hook. And the gun safety lobby has stirred into action, at times led by young people such as survivors of the 2018 Parkland high school shooting. “That sort of mobilisation is new.”
No one really expects America to follow Australia in a sudden, sweeping gun crackdown and buyback scheme of the kind instituted by our then conservative government after Port Arthur in 1996. Not only is the scale of America’s gun problem much bigger than ours was, it is bound up in the Constitution and a myriad of different state laws, says Peters, who helped Australia introduce the reforms.
“No single gun regulation is going to solve things,” agrees Ruben. “Everything is incremental.” But you need only look at how the road toll has been brought down by countries continuously tightening driving regulation to see how powerful such a change could be.
For now, as his state grieves, Ruben is praying that reason at least returns to the gun debate. Before it starts all over again.
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