Firing on all Cylinders

By Jack Horrigan

America’s reaction to mass-shootings has become much like playacting. After the carnage comes the rhetoric: a plea for change from the left, matched by a cacophony of “now is not the time” by the right – punctuated, of course, by thoughts and prayers.

This scene has been well-rehearsed in the past month. The first major mass-shooting of the summer was May 14, where a shooter entered a Buffalo, New York supermarket and murdered 10 in a racist hate crime. The next was ten days later in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, when an 18-year-old murdered 22 people, including 19 children. Eight days later was a shooting in Oklahoma, which killed four. Just three days after that was a shooting in Philadelphia, killing three. These were the first mass-shootings of the summer; they will not be the last.

Lawmakers have followed their scripts precisely. The familiar debate erupted across America, whether on the floors of Congress or the studios of cable news networks. Democrats’ speeches protesting gun violence are fiery and obviously genuine. But the past 13 years (which have seen 277 mass shootings) have eroded something in lawmakers’ rhetoric: hope. Even Connecticut Senator Christ Murphy, who delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor following the Uvalde shooting, conceded that he is no longer seeking an omnibus gun reform bill, but incremental progress.

One could be forgiven for incorrectly assuming that Democrats were the minority party. Despite having a majority in the Senate (albeit only by one person), they are neutered by an archaic filibuster, two rogue members, and unyielding Republican opposition. Democrats have controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress for a year and a half, yet they do not have much to show for it. The kind of broad action one would like to see after a mass-shooting is unlikely. Instead, Democrats must rely, yet again, on appealing to their colleagues’ consciences. 

It is disheartening that the predominant strategy to reduce gun violence in America is hoping to slowly wear Republican opposition down. Left-leaning legislators have now subscribed to a theory of “death by a thousand cuts” – that no shooting, no matter how heinous, will change the GOP’s plank, but combined, hundreds of shootings might. Even more disheartening is the fact that this strategy is difficult to condemn. A sweeping bill on gun control stands no chance in the Senate; a narrower bill is still unlikely, but marginally more realistic. 

It has long been said that the United States has an epidemic of gun violence. This much is inarguable: what is more ambiguous is why. The easy answer is the number of guns. It is true that America has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, and among rich countries, the highest rate of gun violence. But this alone does not explain America’s endemic gun violence. The United States’ rate of gun-related homicides is eight times higher than Canada’s while having only 3.5 times the number of guns per capita. Similar disparities exist between America and other rich countries.

There are three primary causes of this. First, the oft-blamed pandemic of mental health. Mental health is a common GOP talking point following any mass-shooting, usually invoked to avoid any threat of gun control. But the argument is not entirely spurious. The US does an inadequate job at combating mental illness compared to its high-income peers. The science backs this up – studies show that investing more in mental health aid could help to decrease violence in America. A 2008 study shows that mental health counselling is directly related to safer gun storage, and counsellors can help curbsome violent tendencies. But this has not always been popular; Florida enacted a law in 2011 that prohibited counsellors from giving advice on firearms, but which was struck down in 2017.

The proliferation of America’s massacres cannot solely be blamed on the broad and nebulous tent of “mental illness”. There is also the second cause: the unadulterated access to firearms. The US is one of only three countries to have a constitutional right to bear arms. Mentally ill individuals may well have dangerous tendencies, but it is access to firearms give them the incredible means to murder. There have been several efforts to introduce gun control in America. Some movements have been successful: 21 states require background checks when buying firearms, and 6 states (plus the District of Columbia) require registrationNineteen states have so-called “red flag laws”, where police or relatives can petition a state court to remove firearms from an individual believed to post a threat to themselves or others. But even these mild measures are the fruits of strenuous labour. 

This is the third cause: the culture surrounding guns in America.The National Rifle Association (NRA) has, for the past six decades, crusaded against any implementation of gun control in America. Guns are their religion; the 2nd Amendment is their creed. The NRA is bankruptunder investigation, and altogether dysfunctional, but that has not stopped it from being a potent force in American politics. The NRA gives letter grades to representatives, with an ‘F’ representing a legislator who fervently supports gun control, and an ‘A’ representing one who fervently opposes it. These grades alone can effectively bar a GOP primary candidate seeking her party’s nomination. Gun rights are among the most important shibboleths of the GOP. In order to win an election as a Republican, one must follow the NRA’s party line.

But this culture was not always so strict. The 2nd Amendment is perhaps the most powerful single sentence in American politics today: “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”. James Madison’s original intent was for the states to be able to defend themselves against a power-hungry federal government; hence the invocation of a “well regulated Militia”. For most of the country’s existence, this was the general interpretation. Indeed, the NRA once supported gun control measures, including permits for concealed carry. Throughout the 1930s to the 1960s, stricter gun control was not a partisan issue. In 1968, following a decade that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and two Kennedy’s (amongst many others), then-President Lyndon B Johnson attempted to pass a gun control bill. This may be seen as the beginning of the NRA’s crusade. The NRA transformed from an organisation that accepted reasonable limits on gun access into one that saw gun rights as a litmus test. The bill Mr Johnson proposed was sweeping; thanks to the efforts of the NRA, the bill he passed was weak. This successful neutering of the bill was the beginning of the modern NRA.

The 21st century saw the ethos of gun ownership ossify in America. In the 1990s, nearly 80% of Americans supportedstricter gun laws, a figure below 60% today. Yet the number of gun-owning American households has declined – meanwhile, the number of guns bought and manufactured in the US has risen. Functionally, this means that more guns than ever are concentrated with fewer people. Yet they still hold incredible influence. Through both legislatures and the judiciary, gun laws have been peeled back. In 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that Washington, DC, and thus the federal government, could not prohibit registering handguns without violating the 2nd Amendment. A year later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the 2nd Amendment was incorporated at the state level as well – meaning that states now have limited ability to restrict gun access. These two cases effectively struck the “well regulated Militia” preamble and turned the 2nd Amendment into a purely individual right. Some gun-loving states capitalised on this new interpretation; for instance, Oklahoma passed an “anti” red flag law in 2020, prohibiting the state or any cities within the state from passing a red flag law. Oklahoma, of course, was one of the states to experience a mass-shooting in the past month. 

There is some cause for hope. After a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the number of states with red flag laws on the books nearly quadrupled. Within Congress, there is cautious hope that the Uvalde shooting may spark another bout of gun reform on the federal level. On June 23, the Senate passed the Bipartisan Community Safety Aft, a bipartisan gun bill that includes, among other measures, more scrutinous background checks, subsidies for states to implement red flag laws, a 10-business-day waiting period for purchasers under 21, and invests heavily in both mental health and school safety resources. It is incremental, but it still represents the most tangible federal gun control measure in decades. The bill passed 65 to 33 and was signed into law on 25 June.

But even this modicum of progress comes with an asterisk. Just 12 hours before the passing of the bill, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling striking down a century-old New York state law preventing the carrying of firearms in public. Now, gun laws in five states – including the nation’s two most populous – have been forcibly loosened.

Democrats’ “death by a thousand cuts” ethos always relied on public pressure forcing their Republican colleagues to relent. The recently passed gun bill is a symbol of the strategy’s partial success. But the Supreme Court is, by design, much less susceptible to public pressure. The 6-3 conservative majority has already made a series of constitutional pivots, from eroding the wall between church and state for private education, to further protecting police officers who violate suspects’ rights, to eliminating the constitutional right to abortion.

These measures are all broadly unpopular, but there is little the public can do. Supreme Court nominees are separated from voters by several degrees, and appointments are for life. As presidents nominate ever-younger judges, and as life expectancy rises, the tenure of the average justice will rise. To fix this may require a revamping of the Court as an institution, something that President Joe Biden promised to consider on the campaign trail but ultimately led to a milquetoast report avoiding much of the debate. 

It is a sepulchral reality. To achieve a measure of gun safety in America, Democrats may have to overhaul completely one of the three branches of government – and all before their likely defeat in the November midterms. This could include instituting term limits for justices, a movement that has been discussed in fringe of left-leaning politics for years. Senator Elizabeth Warren has even called for expanding the court. Both could set dangerous precedents, but Democrats are now weighing that danger versus the danger of inaction.

“Death by a thousand cuts”, to the extent it was ever viable, is now defunct. It helped the bipartisan bill pass the Senate, which is a start; but even that bill, which was hardly radical reform, was stifled by the conservative Supreme Court. Democrats must find a new strategy to implement gun control. Because it does not take one thousand cuts to end a life –– all it takes is one bullet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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