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Gun control in modern America: hope for change?

A sign outside Sandy Hook Elementary School echoes the thoughts of many this week. AAP/Justin Lane

I have been asked a number of barely concealed variations on the question “What’s wrong with you Yanks?” this week.

Lacking anything better, my answer to the American thanatos with guns has been our national mythology of armed struggle for liberty, first against the British, then other nations in North America, and ultimately on a global scale.

But opposition to gun control is not a universal American value. Indeed, there is as distinct a red/blue divide on this as there is on virtually every other political and cultural issue in the country today. Tim Lynch has provided an excellent analysis of how gun control, along with abortion and virtually every other policy debate in America, has become part of the left-right ideological divide over the scope of government rather than a genuine technocratic discussion about reducing firearms violence.

Divided nation

Increased ideological polarisation means that gun control measures – which enjoyed the support of nearly three quarters of Americans 20 years ago, and despite a decline in the proportion of Americans who actually own guns – are now no better than at 50-50, even in the wake of this atrocity. In fact, New York Times data guru Nate Silver has reported that the decline in gun ownership since the 1960s has come almost entirely from Democrats.

A military-style Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle similar to the weapon reportedly used in the Newtown shootings. AAP/Dave Ellis

The National Rifle Association, the most prominent but not the only gun lobbying group in the country, issues voting guides for its members using the American education system scale of A-F. Republicans in Congress – nearly all of them – have A ratings. Democrats – nearly all of them – have F ratings.

There are two victims of mass shootings in the House of Representatives, both Democrats. Carolyn McCarthy of New York was a suburban Republican voter until her husband was killed and son seriously injured by an assault weapon-wielding gunman on the Long Island Railroad in 1994. When her congressman refused to support gun restrictions she was recruited by Democrats to unseat him. Ron Barber of Arizona was himself shot while serving as an aide to Representative Gabrielle Giffords in a January 2011 attack at a public event at a supermarket and won Giffords’ seat after her injuries forced her resignation.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine a strong Republican supporter of gun control, with the most prominent example, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, attempting to discard his position when he sought the GOP presidential nomination. To conservatives today, guns continue to represent liberty – the ability to defend family and home against criminals or, in the fevered imaginings of the far right, against the United Nations or the American Federal government itself.

Gun control from Johnson to Clinton

Increasingly since the mid-1960s, being a conservative has meant being a Republican, and it has been mostly Democrats who have championed gun restrictions.

President Lyndon B. Johnson campaigned throughout his term for firearms restrictions in the wake of the most high-profile shooting in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Even with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King prompting further action, he was bitterly disappointed with the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed with difficulty by Congress, which did little more than ban interstate gun sales and prohibit some convicted criminals from owning guns.

The shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 sparked the next major piece of gun control legislation in the United States. This one taking even longer to come to fruition. Reagan’s would-be assassin, a mentally ill individual who hoped to win the favour of actress Jodie Foster by emulating her “saviour” in the movie Taxi Driver who planned to kill a presidential candidate, critically wounded Reagan Press Secretary James Brady, leaving him wheelchair-bound with a degree of cognitive impairment. Legislation named for Brady that would require criminal and psychiatric background checks before permitting gun purchases was introduced in Congress in 1987 but defeated in the face of concerted gun lobby opposition.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued an executive order banning temporarily (later permanently) the importation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons. This was in response to a shooting at a primary school in Stockton, California, where a mentally ill man with an assault rifle killed five children and wounded nearly thirty others. But Bush opposed legislation banning assault weapons and actually vetoed the Brady Bill in 1991, claiming that the crime legislation within which it was contained was “too soft” on criminals. A number of conservative or rural Democrats (there were still a number at the time) also opposed the legislation, including House Speaker Tom Foley.

The following year, Bill Clinton displayed his innate talent for reaching out to the aspirational middle class while running for the White House by accusing Bush of being “soft on crime” in failing to protect suburban school children from gun massacres. The strategy was intended to counter decades of Republicans successfully framing Democrats as being more concerned with the civil rights of urban racial minorities than the security of white middle class voters.

The Brady Act

President Clinton succeeded in passing the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in late 1993, probably only because he arranged for Congress to vote on it at the same time as the North American Free Trade Agreement and was able to muster sufficient quid pro quo votes for each. The act instituted a mandatory six-day background check conducted by state governments before allowing individuals to purchase guns from licensed dealers. The Supreme Court later found that delay to be unconstitutional, but by then it had largely been obviated by electronic instant checks by the Federal government.

The following year, Clinton’s Crime Bill, authored by then Senator Joe Biden, which contained an assault weapons ban, faced unanticipated difficulty in Congress and was defeated on its initial vote by the Democrat-controlled House. A cost of passage was the inclusion of a “sunset provision” that would end the ban after ten years unless Congress voted to renew it. The 1994 Crime Bill contained other measures intended to reduce violent crime, such as funding for after-school programs in areas dominated by street gangs. Republicans returned to their successful playbook by charging that Clinton was out of touch with middle America, taking away the self-defence capacity of “average” Americans while spending their tax dollars on “midnight basketball” in the inner cities. The National Rifle Association vowed revenge.

Members of the gun-control group Credo march to an NRA office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

The 1994 elections that followed were a Republican wave. Although the GOP did not win as many House seats as it did in 2010, it gained control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, as well as the majority of governorships. While it is impossible to know the extent to which resentment over gun control contributed to this, the fact that Democrats finally lost their hold on the conservative rural and Southern states where they had enjoyed dominance since the Civil War made it conventional wisdom that it would be political suicide to take on guns again. Neither Al Gore, John Kerry, nor Barack Obama pushed for new gun laws in their campaigns, despite high profile shootings such as the one at Columbine High School that temporarily built national support for new restrictions.

The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 with President George W. Bush and the Republican congressional leadership announcing that they had no interest in maintaining it. During their four years of unified control of Congress after the 2006 elections, Democrats passed no major new crime legislation related to guns.

The opportunity to change

Strangely enough, it was the Democratic drubbing in 2010 that again wiped out representation in pro-gun districts that may have broken the logjam of the past 20 years. Following these losses was the Democratic success in winning in 2012 with a new electoral coalition of groups that support tougher gun restrictions. Polls show that the only demographics of the population that now strongly oppose gun control are those that Democrats are going to lose anyway and no longer need to win: older, conservative white men. Democratic strategists are now saying that they have nothing to lose by pushing forward.

Most pro-gun Republicans have been silent in the first week after the Connecticut massacre. The NRA went so far as to suspend its Facebook and Twitter accounts for days before it broke its silence. It is possible that this will be the first time in decades that gun control will not be a partisan issue. The early signs are that prominent southern and rural Democrats now favour an assault weapons ban.

President Obama has signaled his support for the permanent ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. (Feinsten became mayor of San Francisco after a 1978 gun double homicide). Without concerted conservative opposition, it seems reasonable that Feinstein’s bill can pass the GOP-controlled House with the support of suburban Republicans.

But Feinstein points out that her bill would only renew the previous ban; it would not require the elimination of the thousands of assault weapons already scattered across America, many in the arsenals stockpiled by survivalists such as the shooter’s mother. There is no plan being publicly mooted in Congress at the moment to buy such weapons back and, let’s face it, the survivalists would never give them up anyway.

Reducing the number of automatic weapons and high capacity magazines out there is certainly a good thing. But it seems as though the most aggressive measure being contemplated against gun violence in America represents only a continued halting evolution, and not a fundamental shift.

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