By Monish Tourangbam*
Gun rights, as rooted in the US Constitution’s second amendment, and gun control, reflective of rising gun-related crimes in the United States has been a primary issue in American politics. The tug of war is basically between those who argue gun ownership as a way of defending oneself and others, and those who see owning guns as a ticket to rising violence. Moreover, the philosophy of gun rights has been constantly propagated as one of individualism and liberty—core American values. It is also guided by a quintessential American disbelief in the government’s ability to come to one’s rescue at times of mortal danger. From the Columbine High School Massacre in Colorado to the recent massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, repeated incidents of reckless gun ownership and its violent consequence has rocked American society and political debates. However, American as well as observers abroad seem resigned to the idea that the dust would soon settle down and it will be business as usual.
So, what are American politicians saying this election season on the divisive issue of gun control and gun rights? How strong is the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) influence to stem any substantive steps towards gun control, and what do public opinion polls say? Will President Obama’s passionate call for stricter gun laws from the pulpit bring any change, or will he go towards the sunset in 2016 with having done practically nothing on this issue?
In the recently concluded Democratic debate in Las Vegas, gun control was a major issue of debate. This is unlike previous election seasons when democratic candidates were more cautious about talking gun control for fear of losing rural white voters and some critical swing states like Ohio and Colorado. A general outrage was seen at the continued inaction on restricting gun owners and gun manufacturers. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, “We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence….This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
The NRA has been a ubiquitous feature of the gun control debate, often being seen as that ultimate wall standing on the way to effective actions towards stricter gun control laws in the United States. The money power of the group coupled with the loyalty and the political activism of the members apparently make it a formidable force against gun-control advocates. It reportedly has an operating budget of some quarter of a billion dollars and between 2000 and 2010, it spent fifteen times as much on campaign contributions as gun-control advocates did. Given the increasing number of gun-violence related deaths in the US, it is ironic that the NRA website says, “There’s never been a more important time to become a member.”The group has aggressively created a fear psychosis among the people that the gun control candidates were out to destroy the “sacrosanct” right to bear arms.
But over the years, groups opposing the gun rights activism, and supporting gun control advocacy have also increased their campaigns. For instance, Michael Bloomberg’s Super PAC, Independence USA, has spent millions backing gun-control candidates, and he has pledged fifty million dollars to the cause. Many of these campaigns are now directed to supporting candidates who call out for and fight for stricter screening and background checks for gun buyers. Post the Oregon massacre, President Obama pitched for tighter gun laws like never before, urging Americans to become “single issue voters.” He said that helping elect officials who were sensitive towards the gun laws issue was the only way to bring about some action in the Congress.
According to President Obama, Americans should not elect officials who “oppose gun safety measures,” even if they were “great on other stuff.” Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush drew flak from President Obama for referring to the Oregon mass shooting as “stuff happens.” “Look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s necessarily the right thing to do,” Bush said. Bush has an A+ rating from the NRA, like his fellow Republican opponent Ted Cruz. Both have consistently opposed stricter gun laws.”The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice….It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty,” said Cruz.
While Democrats increasingly swear by the rising number of Americans who support stricter gun laws, including barring convicted criminals and those with mental illness from buying guns, the debates regarding people’s support for gun control or gun rights are not that clear. While there seems to be increasing outcry against gun-related violence, people’s opinion seems to be more complicated when it comes to seeing gun ownership as the cause for these incidents. Periodic public opinion polls give varying results regarding Americans’ support for gun rights versus gun control. While a December 2014 Pew survey tilted the scale towards the former, a more recent mid-July 2015 survey slightly shifted the scale towards the latter. Americans, in general, seem to think that crime is rising in the country. But at the same time, there seems to be a rising perception among this group that owning guns, and not controlling them, could make them safer. As opposed to Americans previously citing hunting as the main reason for owning guns, they now increasingly cite protection as the main reason.
Responding to the surge of activism among the Democratic leaders on the need for gun control, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, “The only problem with the Democrats anti-Second Amendment strategy is that the vast majority of Americans disagree with them on this issue.” There seems to be hardly any consensus emerging on the effectiveness of background checks to stem gun-related violence. Gun rights advocates have branded the entire background checks system as not only flawed but unconstitutional as well, likening it to controversial initiatives like the prohibition or the war on drugs. On other hand, those who speak for gun control recognize the loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, they deem it necessary and vouch for the need to fix it rather than dismiss it as wholly ineffective.
Gun ownership and the related constitutional right are reflective of the course of American history and culture that prides individualism and a generic lack of faith in the government to come to the individual’s rescue. However, given the complexities in finding the balance between preventing rising mass shootings and an age-old American “common-sense” of owning guns, the fight between gun control and gun ownership will continue to be a divisive issue in US politics and elections.
*Monish Tourangbam is an assistant professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka