The debate about US gun control laws is thrust back into the spotlight following the mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket, the second mass killing in the United States in a week.
The political rhetoric in the wake of these shootings has become all too familiar – a post-massacre cycle featuring Democratic calls for stricter controls followed by Republican outrage at the idea and/or alternative proposals that do not involve stricter controls. That is ultimately followed by a lack of congressional action to change gun laws.
“As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theatre in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
Those were the words of Democratic President Barack Obama following the December 2011 massacre of 20 children – between six and seven years – and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the years that followed, Congress was unable “to come together and take meaningful action”, failing to pass stricter gun control laws, even in the then-Democratic-controlled US Senate.
More than nine years later, reacting to the Boulder shooting, President Joe Biden echoed the words of the man whom he assisted as vice president and called on Congress to pass federal laws expanding background checks prior to gun purchases and banning assault-style weapons.
“I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour to take common-sense steps that will save the lives in the future,” said Biden.
In between those two speeches, Democrats have uniformly called for new gun laws after each tragedy, while Republicans, offering their “thoughts and prayers”, focus on alternative proposed solutions such as mental health issues or encouraging more gun-toting security personnel.
“[W]e can make it harder for those with hate in their hearts to buy weapons of war,” Obama tweeted on Tuesday, adding, “We can overcome opposition by cowardly politicians”.
A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country. It’s time for leaders everywhere to listen to the American people when they say enough is enough. pic.twitter.com/7MEJ87Is3E
Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that explored ways to reduce gun violence, “Every time there is a shooting, we play this ridiculous theatre where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders.”
“What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens because that’s their political objective,” Cruz continued.
Following the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staffers died, President Donald Trump followed the GOP playbook promising “to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health”. He even suggested arming more teachers with guns, a proposal embraced by the pro-gun National Rifle Association.
Trump did not follow through on those suggestions, though most of his gun-related actions as president expanded gun laws or loosened restrictions. That being said, Trump did sign an executive action to ban “bump stocks”, a gun accessory used by the attacker who killed 58 at a 2017 music festival in Las Vegas and he also signed a bill that included a provision bolstering the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
New federal laws elusive
Gun control supporters point out that in recent years more Americans have died from firearms than in automobile accidents. They wonder how a nation that had almost 40,000 firearm deaths in 2019, according to the most recent government data, is unable to tighten its gun laws.
The simple answer: Congress.
Even when the Democrats are in the majority, gun control is elusive because, despite national polling suggesting a desire for stricter measures, the makeup of voters of individual states forced some Democrats to buck their party’s efforts.
In 2013, after Obama and Senate Democrats launched a push to ban assault weapons, 16 Democrats voted against the legislation, even though polls showed a majority of Americans supporting such a ban. A bill that would have expanded background checks prior to gun purchases did not have enough votes to overcome a filibuster.
Some of the Democrats who voted “no” were representing southern or rural states that generally vote Republican, like Arkansas, Montana and West Virginia. Others represented states that lean Democratic, but have significant rural pro-gun populations such as Colorado, Maine and New Mexico. In all cases, the wrath of the well-funded, politically influential pro-gun National Rifle Association was poised in case those Democrats voted counter to their states’ voters’ preferences.
Not that it would have mattered, even if the Senate had passed that bill and a companion universal background check bill. Republicans controlled the US House that year and would not have considered gun control legislation.
Biden’s urgent call for action on Tuesday after this past week’s shootings comes as the political environment surrounding the gun debate has moved in the favour of pro-gun control supporters.
Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years. For the ninth straight year, since the 2011 Sandy Hook massacre, a majority of Americans remain dissatisfied with the nation’s gun laws, according to Gallup polling. And the National Rifle Association finds itself dealing with bankruptcy, infighting among its leadership and a lawsuit filed by the New York state attorney general, diminishing its political power for the time being.
This time around will political resolve outweigh potential backlash, especially for Democrats who represent states with pro-gun populations? Is it possible that political resolve will eventually break the traditional post-massacre cycle of rhetoric leading to inaction?