Guns have defined American culture for as long as anyone can remember.

After a year-long pandemic, an economic recession, and a summer of racial uprisings, America seems to be turning a corner. Vaccines are distributed, facilities reopen, and families reunite. And what better show of normality than two mass shootings in less than a week, followed by today’s striking headline of another mass shooting that left 8 people dead at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis.

On March 16, ten people were killed at a supermarket in Colorado, and days later eight more people joined the list at an Atlanta Spa. Between these two mass shootings, eight others took place, amounting to 104 mass shootings in 2021 alone.

The only thing more common than these horrific happenings is the response to them. Outrage sparks, possible explanations are thrown about (mental illness? deteriorating living conditions? political extremism? The gun itself is usually, and purposefully, left out of the debate), politicians vow to change something, there are thoughts and prayers, and on we go to the next ten bodies on the floor.

It happened in 2012 after Sandy Hook, when the massacre of primary children wasn’t enough to get basic background checks implemented. It also happened in 2019, when 20 dead in Texas prompted Trump to say ‘perhaps more needs to be done’ to address gun violence (perhaps? really?). And it’s happening now, with Biden claiming he ‘doesn’t have to wait another minute to take common-sense steps’ and then making infrastructure his priority while gun reform bills rot away in the Senate’s closet.

The most astonishing thing isn’t even the shootings, which are unfortunately so normalised that only those where ten plus people are killed or the rhetoric can be sensationalised make the headlines, but how little sense it all makes. Surely politicians understand that every day that they don’t act is another day of unchecked bloodshed? Surely Americans recognise that daily gun massacres are unjustifiable? Surely they would agree that, even if measures don’t solve the problem completely, they’re worth implementing if they save even one life? These incidents are not inevitable nor unfixable, so why does America sit with folded arms looking at the bodies piling up on the floor?

Gun lobbyists would explain this with their favourite catch phrase: ‘Owning guns and self-defence is my second amendment right’. Is this true? Does the American Constitution — the untouchable document — prevent meaningful change to America’s gun problem?

Demystifying the 2nd Amendment

The amendment, which reads ‘… the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed’ does in fact give citizens the right to own guns, a decision upheld in the District of Columbia vs Heller Supreme Court case. So if that right is protected, it necessarily means the government gets no vote in the matter — right? 

Wrong. This is exactly the fallacious assumption gun lobbyists want you to draw, and the general acceptance around it shows their supremacy in the fight. The 2nd Amendment is not an obstacle to gun reform because, although it does provide a right, rights are not absolute — they need to be balanced with broader social interests for society to work.

This premise is applied to all other rights. Take freedom of speech, for example. It’s highly respected as the 1st Amendment, and yet if it was absolute, child pornography and true threats would all be legal. But instead government steps in, enacting the Imminent Lawless Action Test to ensure that one’s right to free speech doesn’t override someone else’s right to safety. In the same way, it ought to enact background checks and ‘ref-flag’ laws to ensure that one’s right to a gun doesn’t override another’s right to safety.

Regulating gun ownership isn’t violating the 2nd Amendment, it’s considering it in the way other amendments are already considered; largely respected due to their importance but adapted to fit contemporary necessities, like the need for public safety. There is no good reason this amendment should be getting preferential treatment and, as voiced by Roberto Jackson, a myopic vision of the doctrine will ‘convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact’.

Rights can also be restricted in another instance: when they come into conflict with other rights. This was the case in Gannett Co. v DePasquale (1979), when a reporter was barred from a pretrial hearing — experiencing a breach of their freedom of the press — because media sensationalisation of the case was jeopardising the rights of the accused to a fair trial. 

Similarly, the 2nd Amendment isn’t the only right involved in the gun debate. It really comes down to which ones we care for most to protect. Is it the right not to be gunned down for your race (as was the case in the Charleston Massacre of 2015), or the right to own guns? The right to send your kids to school without being scared they won’t make it home, or the right to own guns? America’s silence on these questions is an answer on its own.

But if there is no legally existing barrier preventing America from changing its gun culture, then the blame shifts from the documents to the people, and the question becomes a more daunting one. Namely, if things can change, why do they allow the slaughter to continue?

Could it be because most Americans oppose stricter gun legislation? Apparently not — 84 per cent of voters support universal background checks; a form of bipartisan support unprecedented between two parties who agree on virtually nothing else. The reason might be rooted not in popular will, but in the structure of the American government itself. 

Ugly politics and the filibuster

Two bills were passed in the House in response to recent gun violence. One of them expanded private background checks to private gun sales and another closed the Charleston loophole. Both bills, however, have been at a stalemate in the Senate since Republicans employed the filibuster — the beloved technique one party uses to kill another party’s bill.

As voiced by New York Times’ Spencer Bokat-Lindell, the Senate is already a ‘countermajoritarian’ institution since states are given equal representation regardless of their population, and the filibuster makes it all the more so by allowing a minority to block majority-supported bills.

And why do Republican politicians oppose this so adamantly? Pure strategising. Politicians know that opposing gun control won’t cost them many votes, since whilst some Republicans do support this, it is unlikely to be their decisive demand. Whereas advancing the cause will repel quite a few pro-gunners who have the issue at the core of their political identity. Redistricting has exacerbated this reality. Since congressional districts are now confirmed for a party, competition is more likely to come from within, meaning a challenger could displace a current Republican candidate by opposing gun control and appealing to those decisive, conservative voters.

But despite Republicans presenting a great obstacle to current gun control proposals, the blame can’t be placed solely on them. In fact, it’s the Democrats who should have but failed to push for gun reform all these years.

Democrats’ sheepish approach to gun reforms

As explained by Jennifer Mascia, Joe Biden can do things outside the Senate to inject urgency into this crisis. This includes regulating weapon imports or assembling an interagency task force to lead a coordinated response. And yet, none of his 50 executive orders so far concern gun reform. His promised bill to Congress is nowhere to be seen. This passivity over this issue is characteristic not only of Biden but of the majority of Democrats. And there’s a good explanation for it too.

In 1994 Biden got the ban on assault weapons passed, and later that year Republicans took control of the House for the first time in forty years. Many Democrats connected these two happenings, some going as far as believing that their gun reforms cost Algore the presidency. 

Ever since guns have been the ‘third rail issue of American politics’, anyone who dares approach will inevitably suffer politically. So not only are Republicans terrified of the political cost of gun legislation, Democrats are too. This has opened a sustained rift where gun rights activists can easily bully them with reason and public opinion on their side, convincing the parties that common-sense policies like age checks are revolutionary.

So how can gun control ever pass?

It starts with the movement. Match the pro-gun lobby in momentum, passion and organisation, with supporters and respective politicians progressively growing bolder — both in what they ask for and how they ask for it.

Think bigger than universal background checks and red-flag laws. Start talking about a ban on war weapons — since there is no reason a citizen needs access to these — registering guns, and altogether having less of them in circulation. Start talking about the guns regulation America really needs.

I concede the unlikelihood of these reforms being passed when even the moderate ones fail, but it is perhaps by pulling harder from our side of the tug-rope that we may force the system to meet us in the middle. 

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