Why the United States Won't Control Guns

No national candidate or aspirant for national office dares to offend the gun lobby.

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A Bush Master AR-15 assault rifle is displayed at Firing-Line in Aurora, Colorado, July 22, 2012.
A Bush Master AR-15 assault rifle is displayed at Firing-Line in Aurora, Colorado, July 22, 2012.Credit: AFP

Though the United States leads the free world in gun related deaths, our political leaders refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion of gun control. When gun-toting killers, such as James Holmes, shoot up a movie theater, pundits and editorial writers call for stricter gun laws. So do local politicians from places like New York and Boston, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  But political candidates seeking national office fear the gun lobby—especially the National Rifle Association—more than they fear gun violence. They have learned the lesson of what happened to Al Gore who ran for president in 2000.

Gore was more courageous than most politicians when it came to advocating gun control and many political analysts believe that his courage may have cost him a considerable number of votes in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Arizona.  Some think it may have cost him the election.  Since that time, no national candidate or aspirant for national office has dared to offend the gun lobby.  Even after a congresswoman, Gabrielle Gifford, was shot, Congress refused to enact even the most reasonable of restrictions on gun ownership, such as a ban on assault weapons which are not used either for hunting or for self defense. 

President Barack Obama, who in his heart must support reasonable gun control legislation, made it a point following the Colorado massacre that he would try to end such violence through “existing law.”  His press secretary mentioned “existing law” three times in the course of a briefing about the recent tragedy, and President Obama himself has stayed away from suggesting any new legislation that might upset the gun lobby or voters who cast their ballot on the basis of a candidate’s support for the Second Amendment. 

Ours is the only Constitution that explicitly protects “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”  But the Second Amendment is anything but clear about what those Delphic words were intended to mean at the time they were enacted.  Its words read as follows:

“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.”

In 1793, “arms” meant musket rifles that fired one shot and had to be reloaded.  Today’s assault weapons bare little relationship to those primitive weapons.

Moreover, the concept of “bearing arms” generally relates to the military use of weapons.  Hunters and homeowners do not “bear arms.”  They carry weapons.  That is why until 2008 most constitutional scholars interpreted the Second Amendment as conveying a collective, rather than an individual, right to possess weapons as part of “a well regulated militia.”  But in a surprising decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, a divided United States Supreme Court struck down a District of Columbia ban on handgun possession in the home and other restrictions on the right of an individual to own self defense weapons.  The Court left open the difficult question of what sorts of regulations the federal government or the states could impose on gun ownership.  Congress and the States would seem to retain considerable power to impose reasonable regulations, since the Second Amendment itself uses the words “well regulated,” even in modifying the word “Militia.” 

 Yet the gun lobby opposes virtually all attempts to regulate the purchase or possession of guns even at flea markets, gun shows and on the internet.  The bottom line is that guns are pervasive in America with nearly half of American homes containing at least one gun. 

 The gun lobby does not believe that there is a need to balance gun ownership against the understandable desire to reduce gun violence, because it believes—or says it believes—that widespread gun ownership actually reduces gun violence.  Following the massacre in the Colorado movie theater, the mantra of the gun lobby was: “If everybody in the theater had possessed a gun, the killer would have been stopped before he killed so many people.”  The fact that the killer was wearing head to toe protective armor did not seem to diminish the enthusiasm with which that absurd argument was presented.  Nor does the statistical evidence that seems to show a direct correlation between widespread gun ownership and gun related deaths. 

 The frontier origins of the United States may help to explain both the Second Amendment and the desire of many Americans to own guns.  But today there is no rational need for so many unregulated guns in our country.  Military weapons are omnipresent in Israel, a nation threatened both by external military enemies and internal terrorism.  Sometimes these weapons are used to commit crimes, but not nearly on the scale experienced by the United States.  Unless attitudes and laws change in the United States, we will see more and more avoidable tragedies of the kind experienced in Colorado.