Despite mounting deaths due to the licentious use of the gun, the United States continues to dither on gun control. After eight people were killed by a 19 year old male in Indianapolis last week, all that President Joe Biden said was that the incident was a “national embarrassment”. He did ask Senate Republicans to help pass a gun control bill already cleared by the House of Representatives, but his Administration flatly refused to appoint a gun control “Czar” to put down the entrenched gun culture.
To be fair, a long line of US Presidents have tried to control the use of the gun by the general population. But all of them failed due to two factors: (1) the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which gives Americans a fundamental right to keep and bear arms (2) the political and financial power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The Second Amendment says: “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.” No court has challenged that Amendment, though gun control laws have passed muster. However, even as gun control laws are passed, they are violated or observed in the breach. For example, the Indianapolis assailant, Brandon Scott Hole, had bought his murder weapon despite the fact that in March 2020, the police had seized a shotgun from him after his mother raised concerns about his mental state.
According to the New York Times, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) “has been without a full-time Director for much of the last 25 years because NRA-allied senators have quashed nominations by both Republican and Democratic administrations, arguing that a strong agency leader would threaten the Second Amendment.”
Gun culture is deep rooted in the US as a result of the sanctity accorded to it by the Second Amendment. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that around 114,994 people are shot each year in the US. This includes murders, assaults, accidents, police intervention, suicide attempts and suicides. The BBC reported that there were 14,400 gun-related homicides in 2019, nearly three quarters of all homicides in the US in that year. The percentage of gun-related killings in the US is the highest among major Western countries – 73% in US, 39% in Canada, 22% in Australia, and 4% in England and Wales. The US also leads in gun ownership. According to “Small Arms Survey”, a Swiss research project, there were 390 million privately-owned guns in the US in 2018.
Interestingly, suicides account for a substantial part of gun-related deaths. The BBC quotes the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to say that out of a total of more than 38,300 deaths from guns in 2019, 23,900 were suicides and 14,414 were homicides. Guns are cheap in the US, with handguns going for as little as US$ 200 and an assault rifle for US$ 1500.
However, the Second Amendment notwithstanding, there is general support for gun control. Generally, a majority of Americans would like sale of firearms made more restrictive. But it is to be noted that there is no demand for the repeal of the Second Amendment which is apparently sacrosanct.
Gun control laws vary from State to State. Generally, the Federal government and institutions appear to be more attuned to gun control than the States. BBC reported that California had banned ownership of assault weapons with limited exceptions. Some controls are widely supported by people across the political divide, such as restricting the sale of guns to people who are mentally ill, or those on “watch” lists.
Opinion polls on gun laws show varying results. When taken immediately after a massacre, polls would indicate support for greater gun control and more restrictions. But the moment such incidents disappear from the media, interest wanes and even a law enacted after a massacre may be observed in the breach as governments tend to lose interest in the issue.
Gun Control Laws
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), which regulates firearms at the Federal level, requires that citizens and legal residents must be at least 18 years of age to purchase shotguns or rifles and ammunition. All other firearms — handguns for example — can only be sold to people 21 year olds or older says a report in Deutsche Welle. Fugitives, people deemed a danger to society and patients involuntarily committed to mental institutions, are among those who may not purchase firearms. People with prior felony convictions that include a prison sentence exceeding one year, or misdemeanors carrying sentences of more than two years, are also prohibited from purchasing firearms.
Federal law also blocks the sale of guns to people who have been found guilty of unlawfully possessing or using controlled substances within the past year. This includes marijuana, which, though legalized in many US States, remains illegal under Federal law. Restrictions apply to people who have been issued restraining orders by courts to prevent harassment, stalking or threatening; people who have renounced their citizenship; dishonorably discharged military personnel; unauthorized migrants; and people temporarily visiting the US on non-immigrant visas, for example as tourists, Deutsche Welle says.
Though State and even local governments regulate whether residents may carry guns in public, laws regulating who may receive or possess guns are set out at the Federal level. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a division of the Department of Justice, administers, the GCA. The ATF also regulates the standards for issuing licenses to gun vendors. Shotguns, rifles, machine guns, firearm mufflers and silencers are regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. The purchase of semi-automatic weapons is legal in most States, as are automatic weapons “made before 1986.” Although online purchases of guns are allowed, the gun can be given to the owner only after a background check. .
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a major stumbling block in gun control efforts. Among others, the NRA represents those who fear for their safety in a country where guns abound. These argue that restricting the right to bear arms would leave citizens unable to protect themselves in their daily lives.
In 2017, the NRA spent at least US$ 4.1 million on political lobbying – more than the US$ 3.1 m it spent in all of 2016. The NRA bet big on the 2016 Presidential election backing Donald Trump. It independently spent US$ 53.4m. And the cash seemed to have been well spent. The NRA poured US$ 14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and US $34.4m on opposing 19 candidates who lost.
On the eve of his 100th day in office, Trump addressed the NRA’s annual conference, the first sitting president to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1983. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “I am here to deliver you good news: the eight-year assault on your second amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
Guns are big business in the US. Gun and ammunition manufacturers had revenues of US$ 13.3bn and profits of US$ 1bn in 2017, according to IBIS World.
Pro-gun lobbyists generally speak for the White, older, conservative and rural male. But US demographics is changing. The US is expected to become a nation with a very substantial minority population in the not- too- distant future. Polls among the minorities and young Whites already show that they strongly back gun control. Some commentators also say that the NRA’s power and prospects are exaggerated and that over time, its power will dwindle. Herein lies hope of a less violent America in the years to come.