There are many realities in American politics that are perplexing. Why do so many working class voters support candidates who enact tax and spending policies that benefit the wealthiest Americans? Why do Democrats insist on running candidates who favor expansive abortion policies in districts where voters are culturally conservative and opposed to such policies? But, no issue is more perplexing than guns and gun rights. It touches deep into the psyche of certain Americans, resonates in the culture in ways that are seemingly intractable, and no amount of evidence seems even relevant to large swaths of the electorate.
Yesterday, President Obama gave a deeply emotional speech on the issue. Watching him get choked up talking about the murdered children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it was hard not to get choked up too. That atrocity was singularly horrifying, to be sure, but it was not exceptional. More than 100,000 Americans have been killed in gun violence in just the past decade. Compare that with the 4,491 U.S. service members killed in Iraq from 2003 through 2014. We commemorate our war dead, as well we should, and there are countless commercials asking for assistance for their families and for the wounded warriors who did not die. But, the number of casualties was too much for the American people and, combined with the increasing evidence that the Bush administration played fast and loose with the truth in beginning the war, public opinion turned against the war. If we have lost 100,000 people to gun violence on our own streets, how many more need to die before public opinion is galvanized?
The proposals the president made are not adequate to the problem, as he acknowledged. There is only so much that can be done by executive action. The increased funding for 200 more ATF agents is a good step. Increased funding for research into gun safety is a good step. Increased efforts to monitor those who sell guns are important. And, perhaps especially pertinent to crimes like that at Sandy Hook, the president called for more funding for mental health programs, and for better sharing of information about those whose mental health is such that they should not be permitted to purchase a gun. All these, and the several other items on the president’s list, make sense, but even he admitted they are very small steps. Big steps would require Congress and Congress is beholden to the gun lobby.
President Obama, and future presidents and future Congresses too, are limited in what they can achieve because the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun. I know that legal scholars disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia likes to interpret the Constitution’s many clauses as they were understood at the time they were adopted, but if that were the case, the Second Amendment could only guarantee a right to bear a musket. I would concur with that interpretation. But, Justice Scalia is a font of bon mots more than he is a paragon of consistency. Truly, I wonder how that man sleeps at night.
Any sensible gun laws would, of course, leave in tact the rights of most people who use guns for recreational purposes. A hunting gun is not the problem. Assault weapons are a problem and Saturday night specials are a problem. Of course, we had an assault weapons ban in this country in the not-so-distant past. In 1994, Congress signed and President Clinton passed it. It had a ten-year sunset provision, and it was not renewed in 2004. Competing studies questioned whether the ban had any effect but, of course, because it was not retroactive, its effect could only be felt over time and could only improve with time. To be clear, most gun violence, with or without the ban, is not undertaken with an assault weapon, but the most horrific acts of violence are.
Australia, under the persistent leadership on the issue of Prime Minister John Howard, showed what can happen when a country gets serious about confronting gun violence. Howard also faced political pressure, and constitutional hurdles, but the requirement that anyone purchasing a weapon show why they wanted it, with self-defense excluded as a valid rationale, and the government’s mandatory buyback policy, combined to lower the amount of gun violence in that country by about half. And, presumably, it will keep going down as the number of guns that remained in circulation diminishes over time. Do the math. That would be 50,000 fell Americans who would not have been killed by gun violence in the past decade.
People always play fast and loose with statistics. Critics of gun control note that states with strict gun laws do not always see less gun violence. The problem is that if one state has strict laws, and its neighbors do not, the porous borders make any meaningful analysis impossible. Only a national policy, over a significant period of time, will be able to prove itself.
Critics of President Obama had their talking points ready, and in advance of the speech they denounced him for overreaching his authority, but then they had to abandon that attack line. The President did not re-write any laws with his proposals. He did not really even provide novel interpretations of existing laws. Most of his proposals focused on better enforcement of existing laws, which is precisely what pro-gun groups often say they support in their efforts to prevent new laws from being passed. So, unable to play a constitutional card, the NRA has resorted to its favorite hideout, the land of pure fiction. Obama is going to take YOUR gun away. YOUR gun is the only thing protecting you from radical Muslim extremists. Really? Then can we stop spending all that money on drone strikes and intelligence gathering? YOUR gun is the only guarantor of your freedom. Thank you very much, but I think law is the best guarantor of freedom.
As long as malice lurks in the human heart, there will be violence. No gun law will be able to stop all gun violence to be sure. But, at least President Obama is trying to do something about the killing and the carnage. It is not enough, as he admitted. It may not even do as much as he hopes. Most importantly, however, the president used the bully pulpit of his office well yesterday. Only a sustained, political effort will denude the NRA of its power. The NRA is impervious to information or argument. It is undaunted by the slaughter on our streets. It will take a long time to defeat the NRA politically, but the effort to do so got a boost yesterday at the White House, and that is good news in itself.