Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms in the United States. And in the vast majority of those cases, the killers had obtained their weapons legally.
Now, in the aftermath of yet another devastating school shooting (the three guns used by Adam Lanza to kill 20 children and 6 adults were legally owned by his gun-enthusiast mother), we are hearing the inevitable cries: WHY won’t the United States DO SOMETHING about gun control? Why can’t the Americans get it together and stop this sort of horror from ever happening again? How can so many deaths be allowed to occur as the result of legally purchased weapons?
All sorts of ideas are being tauted: A gun buy-back, restrictions on who can purchase a firearm, better controls on where guns can be carried in public places, revoking the much heralded ‘right to bear arms’…
But reform, quite simply, isn’t that easy.
Why not? The Second Amendment to the American Constitution reads as follows: “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.”
And that has basically been interpreted to mean that Americans have an entrenched right to carry a gun. As a result, plenty of American households are taking up that right with gusto, keeping a gun in their house or workplace. There are more than 300 million privately owned guns in America – that’s approximately one for every citizen.
So what CAN be done? Will all these calls for reform amount to anything?
Today, we explore the five (gut-wrenching) reasons why real action on gun control in America is not as easy as it sounds and sadly, is pretty unlikely.
1. The president can’t just change the Constitution.
First things first. President Obama can’t just change the Constitution – the Second Amendment is an entrenched part of the American legal system and is incredibly hard to alter.
Article V of the Constitution goes through the processes by which amendments to the Constitution (and that includes DELETING previous amendments) can be proposed and ratified.
In short, it requires a proposal to amend to be supported by at least two thirds of the Congress (the equivalent of our House of Representatives) and two thirds of the Senate BOTH to vote in favour of change, or, two thirds of all the State legislatures (remembering here that there are fifty states) have to petition for change. Amendments then need to be ratified by three quarters of State legislatures.
In very, very basic language: there are a lot of steps in the process, involving several levels of Government and a hell of a lot of voting (including by some gun-toting, proud to be armed, fierce defenders of the Second Amendment).
According to About.com, of the thousands of proposed amendments to the Constitution “only 33 have obtained the necessary two-thirds vote in Congress. And of those 33, only 27 amendments (including the Bill of Rights) have actually been ratified and made into law.”
So it’s not just a matter of President Obama just picking up a Sharpie and crossing out the Second Amendment. If only.
2. 50 autonomous states means that there are 50 sets of gun laws which need changing
It would be nice to have just one document outlining all gun laws in the United States but that’s simply not how the legal system works. There are fifty states and each of them have their own set of gun laws.
As The New Yorker explains, each state has its own particular set of laws that govern how you acquire, use and carry a firearm – and they’re all different:
Since 1980, forty-four states have passed some form of law that allows gun owners to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for personal protection. (Five additional states had these laws before 1980. Illinois is the sole holdout.)
So again, this doesn’t require one set of changes by one legislature – this is about 50 different states somehow coming to an agreement on uniform changes that would see a safer America. And that’s pretty hard to achieve, considering they all have different laws.
3. The National Rifle Association unspeakably and terrifyingly powerful.
The NRA is the National Rifle Association. It’s an American lobbying group that is, according to their website, the “foremost defender of Second Amendment rights” (it’s website currently makes no mention of the Newtown massacre). In other words – they like guns, and they support everyone owning a gun. And in America, lobby groups can be incredibly powerful – they’re big political players.
The NRA argues that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun. In their view, gun-safety legislation is an attack on that constitutional right. And fights over rights can be politically very effective because nobody wants their rights to be taken away from them.
The NRA’s slogan is: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. And that’s supposed to convince us that owning a gun is a great deterrent to crime; that somehow, it will result in a less violent society.
This from The Atlantic:
It’s not just that the NRA has pushed for the end of a ban on weapons that are very effective at killing a lot of people in a few minutes… The NRA has pushed for laws allowing people to bring guns to work in 17 states. It’s pushed for “Stand Your Ground” laws in more than 20 states that encourage the use of those weapons.
So the gun lobby have had an awful lot of legal victories and American politicians are very much conscious of the power and influence they wield (including over the pre-selection of candidates for public office and funding political campaigns). All in all? This state of affairs doesn’t really lend itself to reforms that would limit access to guns.
America has the highest gun ownership per capita in the world – with about nine privately owned guns for every 10 American citizens. The country has the highest gun-related murder rate in the developed world (excluding Mexico). One in three Americans know someone who has been shot.
The population of India is three times as big as America, and yet they have one sixth of the amount of guns. Americans have twice as many guns per person as Yemenis, who live in a war-torn nation full of conflict.
In summary: gun ownership in America is unparallelled. But that’s really not so surprising, when you consider that guns can be purchased over the counter at Walmart (a chain store which is kind of like our Big W).
Quite simply, owning and using firearms is a right that many Americans hold dear. If you’ve watched much of the news over the past few weeks, you would have seen at least one American responding that the tragedy in Connecticut would never have happened if the Principal herself had had a gun… It can be baffling to us in Australia but it’s very much ingrained in the American psyche that guns are a necessary and vital part of protecting your own property and family.
This from The New Yorker:
Between 1968 and 2012, the idea that owning and carrying a gun is both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship gained wide acceptance and, along with it, the principle that this right is absolute and cannot be compromised; gun-control legislation was diluted, defeated, overturned, or allowed to expire; the right to carry a concealed handgun became nearly ubiquitous; Stand Your Ground legislation passed in half the states; and, in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that the District’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act was unconstitutional.
5. The political reality for both Democrats and Republicans who are in favour of greater gun control.
This is sad, but true: in America, gun control is simply not politically popular. The majority of people in the US aren’t in favour of reform – even after major tragedies like the one in Connecticut last Friday.
Gallup (a data-tracking website) has been asking Americans since 1990 whether they think gun control laws should be stricter. And, increasingly, the answer is no.
“The percentage in favor of making the laws governing the sale of firearms ‘more strict’ fell from 78% in 1990 to 62% in 1995, and 51% in 2007,” Gallup reported. “In the most recent reading, Gallup in 2010 found 44% in favor of stricter laws. In fact, in 2009 and again last year, the slight majority said gun laws should either remain the same or be made less strict.”
When questioned about gun control, Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary said: “I don’t think today is that day.” He meant that it was not the time to discuss the implications of the political issue. And, according to The New Yorker, if you look at his response from a purely political perspective – it makes sense:
We are, all of us, angry now. Bewildered. And those of us who support gun control are perhaps maddest of all—right now. When it comes to Election Day, though, it’s the pro-gun people whose vote is most likely to be determined by this one issue.
So what does all of this mean? It means that President Obama is in a pretty difficult position. While a mass murder like this would seemingly give him some serious leverage to push for major reform on gun control, the political reality is that it would be extremely difficult. The community appetite for change simply isn’t there, the power of the gun lobby is too strong and legally, the hurdles he would have to jump over are just too high.