Just days after the shooting and killing of 21 people, mainly children, in Uvalde, America’s National Rifle Association (NRA) held its convention boasting 14 acres of the latest weapons. Although its membership has declined since 2018, it spent £23mn on the elections in 2020. New organisations are springing up which take an even harder line than the NRA, such as Gun Owners of America (which advocates arming teachers) and the National Association of Gun Rights (which launched a petition in May urging no gun control). There are said to be around 400mn guns in civilian hands (more guns than people) in the USA, and there are more than 45,000 gun-related deaths there a year, of which over 1,000 were fatalities caused by the police.
In the two decades prior to 2019, there were 101 mass shootings (incidents in which four or more people are killed). Guns are the leading cause of death among young people – more than caused by drugs or car accidents. According to a recent Politico poll, nearly 60 per cent of registered voters think it is at least ‘somewhat’ important for lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws. Polling last year found that 81 per cent supported background checks and 63 per cent wanted a ban on assault weapons. Yet this fails to happen.
The last successful attempt at gun control was under President Clinton almost thirty years ago when the purchase of semi-automatic weapons was banned and tougher background checks were imposed. However, the Supreme Court in 2008 and 2010 declared that the banning of handguns was in conflict with the second amendment of the Constitution which 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’. Clearly, this amendment is specifically linked to its times and to the need for a militia.
For more than 100 years the law in New York state has been that to carry a gun in public you must have a licence, be over 21, have no criminal record, be of ‘good moral character’ and have ‘proper cause’ to carry a gun. The Supreme Court, however, on 23 June ruled that this too is unconstitutional. The fact that the justices were split 6-3 means that it was at least arguable that times and needs have changed. The Governor of New York described the decision as ‘reprehensible’. Americans rose in protest, with tens of thousands demonstrating in Washington and hundreds of rallies taking place across the US to push for gun control measures.
The Democrats did try to introduce some gun law reform in the aftermath of the Uvalde and other recent shootings, but it failed in the Senate as every Republican senator voted against it and any legislative change requires the support of 60 out of the 100 senators – not a simple majority – the so-called filibuster rule. This effectively gives a veto over national policy to a minority of states, most of them strongly Republican. The Atlantic magazine has noted that the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership have more than two and a half times as many residents (about 192mn) as the states with the highest gun ownership rates (about 69mn). But in the Senate, these two sets of states have the same number of votes. However, a bipartisan group of US senators have now agreed a form of gun safety legislation. This was passed by the House of Representatives on 24 June when 15 Republicans voted with the Democrats. This Bill omits the tougher restrictions which the Democrats wanted but it will incrementally toughen requirements for young people to buy guns, deny firearms from more domestic abusers and help local authorities temporarily to take weapons from people judged to be dangerous. At least, it is a start.