Hardly a day goes by without hearing of yet another tragic incidence of mass shooting in the USA. As I write this, there have been seven mass shootings in the last seven days, resulting in the preventable deaths of dozens of people. For people who live outside of the USA, this would seem very mysterious and inexplicable. For someone who has lived both in and outside of this country, here’s my attempt to peel the onion.
There are about 400 million civilian-owned firearms in a population of 330 million. These firearms account for almost half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.
A deeper look shows that a minority of 30% of adults own a gun. 39% of adult males and 22% of adult females own a gun. 36% of whites, 24% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics own a gun. 41% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats own a gun. Of those who own a gun, 66% own multiple firearms. (Data: Pew Research)
Views on gun ownership
A significant majority of Americans favor some form of legislation on gun ownership. 89% of the population favor background checks on people buying a gun. 70% would like to see a federal database created to track guns and a total ban on assault-style weapons — the kind of gun responsible for almost all mass shootings. (Data: Pew Research)
Why then is it so hard to do these things that the majority of people want in a democratic country? To understand that, let us look at history.
Guns are ingrained in the history of this young nation. They were used to gain control of the land from the Native Americans. The power that came with guns was used to keep slavery alive when a young nation needed lots of hands to build. When the enslaved people tried to run away to freedom, there were many self-appointed white “slave catchers” who would hunt them down and bring them back for rewards. In the process, many free black men were also forced back into slavery. These “slave catchers” and the police were often one and the same. Some of that legacy has permeated even to this day in the form of disproportionate police brutality targeted at African Americans.
There is another historical reason why the USA has a close association with guns. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution states, “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.” This was based upon the natural rights to self-defense and resistance to possible oppression by the government. During the Revolutionary War era, militia groups often served as small private armies that would protect the communities, towns and even the colonies. James Madison also argued that state militias “would be able to repel the danger” of a federal army so that we do not slide towards a military dictatorship.
Where we are now
While the musket in 1776 could fire 3 volleys per minute after reloading twice, James Madison certainly did not anticipate a day when an AR15 could be owned by a civilian that can fire over 100 bullets per minute. It is only natural that our Constitution, which is a living document, be amended again, like it has been done multiple times. However, most of the Republicans and the conservative Justices of the Supreme Court are Originalists. Originalists view the constitutional text as fixed, and any gun-ownership related amendments should be made in accordance with the thought process that the founding fathers must have envisioned when they wrote the Constitution.
Most of the USA is still rural. Hunting is popular in these areas. People living in far off places feel safer having a gun for self-protection as well. They see any legislation on guns as the first step towards taking their guns away and leaving them vulnerable. Guns give them the feeling of power and of being in control. They like to stockpile firearms and ammunition, fearful that the government may come one day to take away their guns. These predominantly white rural conservatives are used to their power, and they like to demonstrate that they can take over a State Capitol building, as they did in Michigan, if they wish to, with their guns. They failed to do so at the US Capitol on January 6 because guns are banned there.
The National Rifle Association is their ally. While the NRA lobbies Republican lawmakers with campaign money, they are currently fighting bankruptcy themselves. Their power these days is mainly in their influential voice rather than in their cash.
What can be done
President Biden can, and probably will, issue Executive Orders soon on some form of commonsense gun laws. Banning assault-style weapons and implementing mandatory background checks on all gun purchases have the overwhelming support of the people. However, an Executive Order is temporary and is only good as long as the President is in power. The next President can cancel it at the stroke of a pen. What he will be looking to do instead would be to sign a Bill.
The last time a gun-related bill was passed was in 1994 by Democratic President Clinton. Assault weapons and large-capacity magazines were banned for 10 years. That resulted in a decrease in mass shooting deaths for those 10 years. The decrease was more in the later years. In 2004, Republican President Bush let the law lapse. After the ban lapsed, in the following 10 years, mass shootings increased by 183% and related deaths increased by 239%. (Source: Washington Post)
To pass a similar bill, President Biden will need the support of the Senate. Republicans are almost certain to filibuster such a bill. The rural Republican voting base will turn on them if they allow such a bill to pass. The Democrats do not have the votes to eliminate the filibuster from being used. The best thing that the Democrats can do now is to find a way to weaken the filibuster first and then bring up the bill for a vote. If President Biden can figure out a way and indeed pass such a bill, it will be a landmark bill and will surely move the country forward in the right direction.
Kaushik Pal is an engineer, activist, writer and artist. He grew up in India and now lives in Michigan, USA, with his wife and two college-going children.