Words by Mike Sheridan
As America deals with the fallout of yet another mass shooting – this time during a July 4th parade in Chicago's Highland Park that left seven dead – the global reaction is one of shock and bewilderment; how can a seemingly advanced nation allow these horrific things to happen time and time again?
The reality is complex – much like the US's history with guns – with advocates insisting that the Second Amendment protects their rights to own often high-powered weaponry.
In truth, the founding fathers who ratified the Second Amendment would likely struggle to find much common ground with the National Rifle Association (NRA) as it stands today.
In 1791, they ruled: "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."
Even in the late 18th century, when it was first written, the amendment had some key restrictions, with the founding fathers refusing to allow enslaved people, free ‘men of color’, or otherwise law-abiding white men who refused to pledge allegiance to the revolutionaries, to legally own a firearm.
So why is it regularly touted as absolutist by gun advocates in the US today?
Gun control in the US has had a convoluted, erratic history.
It wasn't always Democrats who were arguing for stricter controls of ‘weapons of war’. In fact, the first significant federal law restricting ownership of guns was passed in 1968, the year both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. The law restricted those with recorded mental health issues, convicted of a crime that resulted in a jail term of more than a year, and those who had been 'dishonourably discharged' from the US military from owning a legally registered gun.
The law was passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate by an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats, which is now a rarity in modern politics.
The 1993 Brady Bill amended the 1968 gun control act and was signed into law by President Clinton. It required a background check and a five-day waiting period for anyone looking to purchase a gun. It also banned certain assault weapons, but with the requirement that the bill would be reviewed in 10 years. In 2004, under the George W. Bush administration, it lapsed with minimal resistance from Democrats and assault weapons could be purchased again.
In 2005 a new law was passed that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits when crimes have been committed using their products.
In a landmark case in 2008, The District of Columbia v. Heller The Supreme Court found the 1975 Firearms Provisions Act unlawful. It ruled five to four that residents in the District of Columbia did not have to have their weapons 'unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock'. This was significant as the court found it 'violated the second amendment'.
But to understand why these laws have chopped and changed over the years, you first have to understand the American obsession with guns.
Perhaps more tellingly, the reasons why Americans feel they need a gun have changed dramatically over the years. In a 1999 poll, most gun owners touted hunting and target practice as their reason for owning a weapon, with just 26 percent saying it was for protection. In a 2015 National Firearms Survey, 63 percent of people now said they held a gun for protection.
With deadly assault weapons widely available, mass shootings have been on the rise in the US in recent years; according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been more than 300 this year alone.
Former President Barack Obama called the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012, in which 20 children and six staff members were murdered, the low point of his presidency, voicing deep frustration at the country’s lax gun control laws.
The Federal Assault Weapons ban signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 had been allowed to lapse by George W. Bush's administration in 2004, making weapons such as the semi-automatic AR-15 legal.
It was this kind of weapon, a DDM4 rifle, that the gunman used in Uvalde, Texas, to kill 19 children and two staff members in May this year. This assault rifle is commonly the weapon of choice for those looking to carry out such atrocities.
For a sitting president to sign something into law, they first have to get it passed by the House of Representatives, which has 435 sitting members, and the Senate, which has 100.
Generally speaking, Republicans and Democrats will vote with their party, but whether or not that law passes has more to do with the number of elected officials from each party sitting in each branch of government. So, for instance, if there are more Republicans than Democrats sitting in either house, a Democratic president would still struggle to get a bill passed into law and vice versa. This type of political back and forth has hurt any real chance for gun reform at a national level for the past decade or so.
The NRA’s close links to the Republican party is often cited as a factor; it has donated to multiple Republican campaigns, including that of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who recently blamed fatherless children and computer games for mass shootings. His comments came just days after the Uvalde shooting, where the state hosted the NRA’s annual convention attended by the likes of former president Donald Trump.
But there may be hope; both the Senate and the House of Representatives – currently both narrowly Democrat – recently managed to pass a new bill in the wake of Uvalde. The bill would allow for stricter background checks on gun buyers under 21, block those who have abused a partner from buying a gun, and give billions of dollars in funding to mental health programs.
It's something, but campaigners say it's not enough.
As for whether the law will go further, 59 percent of Americans are in favour of stricter gun laws; it would seem the only thing missing is the political will to make it happen.
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