The United States has more gun deaths annually than any other country in the free world. Every time senseless deaths occur because of guns, articles and editorials demand stricter gun control laws. After the 2012 theatre shooting by James Holmes, who used multiple firearms to kill 12 people and wound 70 others, the media was filled with journalists, commentators, and families of the victims demanding gun control. Politicians, in general, issued words of sympathy but passed on any significant debates about gun control.
Gun culture in the United States is often attributed to its frontier origins. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner’s published his famous thesis declaring the American frontier closed.” The Turner thesis elucidated a theory that Americans frontier society dates back to the Europeans who settled in the land. Thus the frontier mentality became a decisive facet of the American character. Turner supported his thesis by explaining how the desire for personal liberty and territorial expansion became a part of the American national character via Manifest Destiny (Davidson 1).
The frontier was subsequently lauded in books, television, and film. Life on the frontier had its own laws because there were few official rules of law. It is often shown as a lawless land and in some cases a land in which people who were armed to the teeth lived in a militarized style zone. There were enemies everywhere be they hostile American Indians, Mexican raiders, outlaws, rogue soldiers, or wild animals.
According to Lawrence Davidson ideas about “rugged individual” and justice coming from “the barrel of a gun” became part of modern US heritage. According to Davidson, this explains why almost civilians own almost 270 million firearms. Guns were a fundamental part of the legend of frontier culture. Therefore to many Americans, they represent personal freedom and a theoretically simpler time (Davidson 1).
It is not only politics that shape gun control in the United States. Culture, government, and law enforcement issues create massive obstacles to implementing gun control laws. Gun control faces a culture that gives gun ownership a distinctive status in the United States. B J. James’ research about whose morals and well-being appear to be jeopardized by gun control discusses some of the hurdles faced by gun control advocates. A few of his conclusions are that guns are ingrained in the culture as protection; guns carry cultural consequence and status in America and the NRA has led many to believe that gun ownership is a constitutional right (44 ).
Gun control advocate Alan Dershowitz has discussed how Congress conjures the Second Amendment whenever it refuses to pass laws banning ownership of assault weapons. The United States Constitution Second Amendment states, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This was a reference to rifles that fired one musket ball at a time. Modern assault weapons are not the same as musket rifles. Assault weapons are not for hunting and not useful for self-defense. Additionally, bearing arms was a military expression and this part of the amendment refers to the American military. Bearing arms had nothing to do with civilians and their weapons (Dershowitz 1).
Constitutional scholars explain that the Second Amendment addresses the right of “a well-regulated militia” to “bear arms.” The NRA co-opted the Second Amendment and uses it to counter any and all laws that try to normalize gun ownership. Furthermore, the NRA uses the Second Amendment to promote gun sales by anyone to anyone without restriction including gun sales online. NRA propaganda goes so far as to claim that gun ownership reduces gun violence (Dershowitz 1).
Another scholar, Noam Chomsky, has weighed in on the misuse of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment does not protect the right of civilians to own guns. According to Chomsky laws, the United States Constitution, and amendments are never interpreted literally because humans interpret them and re-interpret them based on current culture. America’s culture is one of fear. Americans fear being attacked by the United States government (Chomsky and Barsamian 128).
Corporations in the United States have created this fear as a distraction to prevent consumers from fearing corporations. The United States government can be held accountable and the corporations are not accountable. Therefore, for many years, propaganda by corporations has focused on the government as the enemy. Because of this people fear the government is attacking them. The media has re-enforced the idea of the government as the enemy because the media does not want to confront powerful corporations that have economic control over their lives. Civilians wanting guns in order to protect themselves from imagined personal threats by the government are absurd. Civilians with guns do not make the country safer; they make it more dangerous (Chomsky and Barsamian 49).
During the American Revolution and immediately afterward there were laws passed to control the sale of gunpowder. This was a response to the fear that a monarchal type of government might take power in America. In 1837 the first handgun ban passed. Before and after the Civil War there were gun control laws that prohibited blacks from owning guns. In the famous 1856 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled among other things that freed slaves did have the right to own guns. This was a response to the crimes against blacks in the South. The Valentines Day Massacre in 1929 led to the passage of gun control laws and eventually to the National Firearms Act of 1934 (Cornell 142). Since 1934 automatic weapons have been regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was a response to the assassination of President Kennedy. The 1968 Act was designed to shore up gun control of illegal weapons at the federal, state, and local levels. It contains extensive wording about all the people who are exempt from the law and repeatedly states that it was not intended to restrain civilians from owning and buying firearms (Cornell 141-142). It applies to licensed dealers, convicted felons, drug addicts and the mentally ill only.
The 1986 Hughes Amendment to the National Firearms Act was considered formidable legislation at the time. It caused heated debates between the proponents of the bill and pro-gun lobbyists such as the NRA. The passage of the Hughes Amendment required that “intent” be proven in order to prosecute someone for illegally selling firearms. It refined the already constricted definition of a licensed dealer (Hardy 1). Yet it invoked heated debates and is still the subject of recall efforts today.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act became law on November 30, 1993. It is especially significant because it endures. It requires a nationwide criminal background check to allow a salesperson or corporation that is officially permitted to sell firearms to determine if the sale of a firearm to a buyer was legal or not. The Act originally required a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. The measure requires the firearm salesperson to confirm the place of residence of the gun purchaser with the police (Library of Congress).
The Act forbids importers, manufacturers, and dealers from selling handguns to unlicensed individuals. This caveat was weakened by the disclaimer that these large sellers of handguns could sell to unlicensed persons under a long list of circumstances thereby establishing many loopholes. The penalties and fines for violating the Act were minimal: a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment that cannot exceed one year (Library of Congress).
A 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed the effectiveness of the 1993 Brady Act. The requirements of the Act were watered down applying licensed gun dealers in 32 states only. The Act called for background checks and a five-day hold. Eighteen states were exempted allowing them to enforce their own gun control laws (Cook, Sanford, and Ludwig 1-4). The Brady Act was further weakened in 1998 when the five-day waiting period was revoked.
Early debates about the Brady Act revolved around the denial of gun sales to approximately 44,000 people in 1996. These sales were denied because the buyers had felony convictions and/or a history of mental illness. The study compared Brady states with non-Brady states and found that there was no meaningful difference in the rate of deaths and gun-related crimes. The rate of suicide by gun was lower in the Brady states however, causing the researchers to conclude that the Act does reduce suicides (Cook, Sanford, and Ludwig 1 -4).
While the NRA uses studies such as this to proclaim that gun control laws do not reduce gun-related crime, the fact that in one year 44,000 people were denied a gun is meaningful in itself. Additionally, commonsense tells us that the Brady Act impeded the sale of guns from gun dealers to the secondary gun market. The black-gray-secondary gun market handles approximately 40 percent of all gun sales (Cook, Sanford, and Ludwig 1). The Brady Act only applies to licensed gun dealers.
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, aka the Assault Weapons Ban, was somewhat comprehensive compared to most gun-control laws. The 1994 bill cost $30 billion dollars to design and pass and was 1,100 pages long. The bill was recognized with lowering crime rates. However, in 2004 it expired and was not renewed during the pro-gun presidency of George W. Bush. Bush never hid his hostility toward gun control laws. His opposition to gun control was so well known that an NRA spokesperson claimed the NRA would have an office in the Bush White House. Bush appointed gun advocate John Ashcroft U.S. Attorney General. Ashcroft pushed for gun sale records to be expunged after 24 hours. His rationale was that record-keeping was equal to unauthorized gun registration (Spitzer 97).
After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in which a student shot and killed 32 people on campus legislators were prompted to pass the NICS Improvement Act. This increased funding for the habitually under-funded and often ignored National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It also urged institutions and states to put forward mental health records to the NICS index (Bureau of Justice Statistics). In 2008 Bush’s legacy Supreme Court justices repealed Washington D.C.'s handgun ban (District of Columbia v. Heller). In 2010, the same court struck down Chicago's handgun ban (McDonald v. Chicago).
Back in 1970, Senator Joseph Tydings sponsored the failed Firearms Registration and Licensing Act. As a result of his gun control advocacy, he lost his bid for re-election. According to Alan M. Dershowitz, the reason nothing meaningful is accomplished in regards to gun control by United States political leaders is that they fear the National Rifle Association (NRA) “more than they fear gun violence” (1). Dershowitz contends that Al Gore’s courageous stand on gun control cost him the 2000 Presidential election, and that has become a cautionary tale for political leaders not to take on the NRA. After Gore’s loss, political leaders, especially at the national level, avoid offending the NRA. Since that time, no national candidate or aspirant for the national office has dared to offend the gun lobby.
The NRA sponsored the recall of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a proponent of gun-control legislation. In reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting of schoolchildren and teachers by a pro-gun gun owner, Bloomberg had begun campaigning for stricter gun laws. In response, the NRA donated $360,000 to the recall committee attempting to unseat Mayor Bloomberg (Purnick 159).
Recently, Colorado senators John Morse, Angela Giron, and Evie Hudak were subjected to NRA-backed recall efforts. These senators supported laws passed after the theatre massacre. Those laws called for background checks in private gun sales and banned the selling of gun magazines that hold in excess of 15 rounds of ammunition (Palazzolo 1 -2).
The Senate did not pass the recent bill to develop more in-depth background checks for gun buyers. That bill was another meek bipartisan gun-control law advocated by President Obama. Mayor Michael Bloomberg used up approximately $12 million lobbying for the bill. The NRA had lobbied against the modest expansion of background checks. Interestingly polities who habitually fear the NRA and refuse to cross that organization may have to make a choice in the future about which organizations they fear the most. There are indications that the voters in the United States have had it with politicians who kowtow to the NRA.
New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte was confronted at a town hall meeting by the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook principal. Additionally, after Ayotte’s no vote her disapproval ratings jumped to 46 percent. Unexpected support for the bill came from Pennsylvania junior Senator for Pennsylvania Pat Toomey. The NRA claims to have a hold on Pennsylvania, but maybe their grasp is weakening. The pro-gun-rights libertarian Robert Levy announced that the NRA’s “stonewalling of the background-check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively” (Levy 1).
There have been so many repercussions in the form of bad press and letter campaigns that junior senator John Isakson and junior senator Jeffry Flake have made noises about changing their “no” votes. Majority Leader Harry Reid, an NRA member, tried to stem critics from his constituents by suggesting that maybe they could have a re-vote on the bill (Macgillis 1).
Tom Edsall of the NYT claims that politicians miscalculate their constitutes' conservatism. Additionally, they do not comprehend that much of the public is becoming disgusted with the heartless comments after every mass shooting by the NRA and are offended by the organization's constant grandstanding. The ceaseless invocation of the Second Amendment by the NRA and its many mean-spirited vocal supporters is wearing thin on a public appalled by the lack of control over gun violence in the United States.
Though the NRA claims gun control laws have been ineffective and lobbies to have them thrown out gun ownership in the United States has declined steadily since the 1970s when the modern gun-control movement emerged. Another pretentious habit of the NRA is to grade candidates on how well they support the NRA. This technique is losing its charm as well. At least six senators and governors who received an “F” grade from the NRA won their most recent elections. According to newly-elected Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut declares, “the NRA does not win elections anymore.” As evidence, Murphy offers up how 13 out of 16 NRA supported candidates lost in the senate elections last year (Macgillis 1-4).
A politically motivated gun owner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford in the head with a semi-automatic in 2011. The shooting took place in front of a suburban grocery store. The gun owner shot and killed six people and injured thirteen others. President Obama expressed great sympathy for Gifford and the other victims. However, his stance on gun control continued to be mostly verbal. In 2011 and 2012 President Obama stated he would enforce existing laws rather than offering ideas about new laws (Dershowitz 1).
President Barack Obama spoke out in favor of stricter gun control laws again in January of 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He referred to new laws to be passed by Congress and alluded to possible executive actions being taken if Congress failed to enact such laws. President Obama reiterated the much-neglected need to have secondary market gun sales regulated. He spoke about bans on assault weapons. His proposal was to limit the sale of magazines to 10 rounds maximum and ban private possession of armor-piercing bullets. Obama called for funding the Center for Disease Control’s research on gun violence; funding that has consistently been denied by previous administrations (Whitehouse).
On September 16, 2013, Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old Navy contractor with a history of mental illness shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. Again President Obama spoke on the subject of gun control. Again his speech was a reaction to a mass shooting. Obama referred to the gun-control legislation package that is currently being delayed in Congress. These and other comments from Obama about the need for gun control in the United States have been made after all of the mass shootings during his presidency. After Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and the Gifford shootings Obama advocated for stricter gun control laws and more complete background checks. Each time he has been opposed by Republicans and pro-gun Democrats in Congress (The Guardian). The NRA’s response to the Navy Yard shooting was that it had nothing to do with the lack of gun control.
Grassroots pro-control groups have started to form and though they may never reach the decibel level of NRA members they are having an impact. Moms Demand Action and other groups have demanded the attention of the pro-gun rights politicians who thought they could blithely vote no on the Obama-supported legislation. Eric Cantor is one of their targets. A survey of his home state, Virginia, revealed that eighty-five percent supported the gun-control proposal. The no vote on the proposed legislation did not disperse pro-gun control supporters as it has in the past. Instead, it rallied them. After the no vote membership in Moms Demand Action rose 30 percent and the group received $11 million dollars in donations within four months (Macgillis 3-4).
This small humble bill is not the end; it is the beginning of a new vocal pro-gun control lobby. However, some politicians who have been supporting gun control have suddenly become more moderate. Macgillis of The New Republic pointed out that a notable example is a change in Senator Joe Manchin’s political ads. Formerly his ads labeled “protect our Second Amendment rights” showed the West Virginia senator shooting a rifle at a stack of paperwork about a trade bill. His new ad shows him with a rifle talking about responsibility and the need for gun control legislation, at the end of the ad he encourages viewers to contact the NRA and demand they support expanded background checks. Machlin claims to be a gun supporter from a gun culture who was convinced by the Sandy Hook shooting and the fact that the Al Qaeda terrorists bought their firearms at United States gun shows (1).
After the massacres at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, the NRA proposed legislation that would allow people to bring concealed weapons on to college campuses. This legislation would outlaw colleges and universities from having policies against guns on campus. Author Robert J. Spitzer, an NRA member and a Brady Center member seeks an end to the conflict-ridden topic of gun control. He is concerned that after school shootings and political assassinations the media leaps on gun control as a means of fanning the flames of controversy. His discussion includes the illogic behind the NRA proposal to support gun caches on college campuses as a means of controlling gun violence (63).
In response to the pro-gun legislation Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin now allow guns on their campuses including classrooms and dormitories. The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus and The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence have websites that feature the gun policies in each state so that parents can make better-informed decisions about where, or where not, to send their kids to college (Armed Campuses). Kansas passed a bill permitting concealed carry weapons on campus in general and Arkansas passed a rule that permits faculty members to carry. The Kansas legislation also prohibits colleges and universities from banning weapons on campus. School administrators are lobbying for a 4-year exemption from enforcing the legislation.
Gun control legislation in the United States has been timid and has been met with violent opposition. Whenever pass gun control laws were attempted there was swift and hostile resistance from gun rights lobbyists. The Brady Act has been somewhat effective in that it prevented easy access to guns to convicted felons-- a policy that seems obvious on face value, but was opposed by the NRA. Research also revealed that an unforeseen consequence of the Brady Act was that it reduced suicides in older Americans because of the waiting period that has since been revoked.
There currently is no legislation that applies to the secondary market. Recently Congress failed to pass even the most limited legislation that would expand and fund background checks. Gun control advocates are moving past their puzzlement about the resistance to controlling assault rifles. They are gearing up campaigns against the NRA and in favor of gun control. The campaigns have only just begun but they are starting to succeed. These grassroots movements and the political leaders they inspire offer hope in passing gun control laws. If more forceful laws are not passed, the tragedies and mass shootings in the United States will continue.
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District of Columbia v. Heller
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