Every parent’s worst nightmare–a child sent to school, never to return. And the relentless question: how can a teenager with mental illness possess so many deadly weapons? For decades, the gun rights vs. gun control debate has polarized the United States. This debate resurfaces after every mass shooting, yet little has changed. When looking at the details though, the partisan divide is less than it seems.
Partisans of gun ownership believe that theirs is a constitutional right enshrined in the Second Amendment, despite scholarly debate regarding its true meaning. Indeed, the Amendment states that “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.” On the one hand, some believe that this sentence proclaims an individual right to bear arms. Others point to the purpose of a well-regulated militia to claim that the Framers intended to prevent giving away a State’s right to self-defense. This collective rights theory has prevailed since 1939, and the Supreme Court ruling in The United States v. Miller. However, this ruling was revoked in 2008 in favor of the individual rights theory. While the Court reaffirmed the rights of individuals to bear arms, it didn’t rule out the possibility of placing limitations on this right. For instance, the Court upheld the right to ban weapons on government property, the right to ban juveniles and convicted felons from owning a gun, and the right to enforce regulations requiring a permit to carry concealed weapons.
Some pro-gun commentators were quick to say that the root cause of the Florida mass shooting was a mental health problem, not guns. The level of mental health issues in the US is comparable to that of other developed countries in the world and yet, the United States is the most prone to mass shootings. Moreover, a study by Josh Tewksbury shows that the more guns there are in a country, the greater the likelihood of gun-related deaths. Although the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world population, almost a third of mass shootings happening on the planet take place there, according to a study by the University of Alabama. There have been 1,600 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, resulting in 1,800 deaths and 6,500 wounded (Gun Violence Archive). Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that a U.S. citizen is 8 times more likely to die of gun violence than Canadians, and 27 times more likely than Danish people (this data excludes deaths from armed conflicts, accidents, or self-inflicted wounds). Mass shootings are very much an American phenomenon, made possible by relaxed gun laws. In 1999, a UC Berkeley comparison between crime in London and in New York showed that the United States has comparatively less crime, but this crime is more likely to end up with lethal violence than its counterpart because of the availability of guns. A review of 130 studies in 10 different countries by Epidemiologic Reviews in 2016 showed a correlation between new gun control laws and a drop in gun violence.
At the same time, the same research center also points that most Americans believe these same laws would prevent them from protecting their homes and family and would give the government too much power over an individual. Indeed, while half of gun owners cited hunting as the main reason to own a gun 20 years ago, most gun owners today cite protection as their main motive. Despite the increasing number of mass shootings, these trends are accentuating over the years. Also accentuating is the partisan divide over the issue. While only 29 percent of Republicans sustain that stricter laws would reduce the number of deaths resulting from mass shootings, more than 70 percent of Democrats support this statement. More and more Republicans also believe that stricter gun laws will lead to taking guns away altogether. Overall, 74 percent of Republicans are in favor of gun rights compared to 22 percent of Democrats, as opposed to 45 percent and 25 percent, respectively, twenty years ago. A Pew Research Center study before and after the mass shootings in Aurora, Tucson, and Virginia Tech further shows that these mass shootings do not change people’s views on gun control vs gun rights.
Rally to Prevent Gun Violence Rally to Prevent Gun Violence. by Jay Baker at Annapolis, MD
The results are significantly different, however, when people are asked about specific gun regulations. Most Americans agree with new legislation requiring broader background checks and banning military style weapons. In the wake of the Florida massacre, an NPR/Ipsos poll that 91 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans favor banning assault-style weapons altogether. A Pew Research Center Poll conducted last year showed that 89 percent of Americans were in favor of preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, that 84 percent favored background checks for private gun sales, while 83 percent agreed to ban sales of weapons to persons on no-fly or watch lists. A Gallup poll shows that the portion of Americans hoping for stricter gun laws rose from 32 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2018. For the past three years, most Americans believe gun sales should be more regulated.
Then, why are the political leaders not enacting the gun control measures that most Americans want? President Trump was one of the first to recognize that the Douglas High School shooter was mentally ill. Yet during his first month in office, President Trump revoked the Obama-era bill preventing the 75,000 U.S. citizens too mentally ill to handle their own health benefits from acquiring guns. This repeal was supported by the National Rifle Association, the ACLU, a prominent civil-rights organization, and mental health advocacy organizations. After the Florida massacre, some Congressional leaders didn’t dismiss the possibility of revisiting this legislation. For instance, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, stated that “if someone who is mentally ill is slipping through the cracks and getting a gun, because we have laws on the books—we have a system to prevent people who aren’t supposed to get guns from getting guns—and if there are gaps there, then we need to look at those gaps.” However, any calls for action are usually unfruitful. For instance, the massacre during which 58 people were killed in Las Vegas last October drew momentum for banning bump fire stocks, an accessory that allows to a rifle to be fired like an automatic weapon and contributed to the gunman perpetuating the most deadly massacre in U.S. history. Yet so far, the proposed legislation has not been adopted. In the wake of the mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut a bill requiring background checks reached the Senate, yet after the NRA lobbying campaign, the vote was 56 votes in favor: not enough to override the filibuster.
The answer may lie in the salience of the issue for the American voter. Gallup polls also show that a quarter of American voters would only vote for a political candidate who shares their view on gun laws. Lobbyists such as the NRA are quick to make them believe that any legislation restricting gun ownership is the beginning of the end of their constitutional right to protect themselves. Pro-gun proponents are, therefore, less vocal about their political views, offering only their thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting while the NRA waits out the storm.
*Cover image by Michael Saechang
Hélène Dieck received her PhD from Sciences Po, Paris, France. She was previously responsible for elaborating military doctrine at the French Ministry of Defense and served as a visiting researcher at the RAND Corporation, Washington, DC. She currently works as a migrant welfare specialist at Qatar Foundation and recently publishedThe Influence of Public Opinion on Post Cold War U.S. Military Interventions (Palgrave, 2015).