Sadly, Orlando deaths won’t be a force for change in America’s gun control debate
Noah Shusterman says despite the public outrage, America’s federalist political system means that any effort to toughen national gun control laws will run into the same opposition – from rural states
Tragic events like the mass shootings in Orlando on Saturday night bring international attention to a quintessentially American problem: why does one of the world’s most developed countries continue to have such a high murder rate?
These mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg that is gun violence in the United States. Every year, guns kill roughly 30,000 Americans, including suicides. The laws in place in the US make it very difficult to stop people from killing each other, or from killing themselves. Quite simply, it is easy to get a gun. Anything from small pistols and shotguns, to assault weapons designed for modern battlefields, is available for anyone willing to do a bit of travelling within the country.
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The overall framework of American laws comes from the US Constitution, which means that in some fundamental ways, the US laws are still stuck in the 1780s. For such an old document, the constitution has otherwise proven to be a useful and flexible set of principles.
Its second amendment, though, states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. That amendment came from a vision of a society dominated by independent farmers willing to take up arms to protect their freedom. That vision paved the way for an American tradition that valued independence, self-sufficiency and the ability of men to protect themselves and to fight for their freedom.
And while that vision of society has faded, the language of the constitution has remained the same. Any laws governing weapons still need to follow the basic principles of the constitution.
While the legal framework has remained the same, the weapons have not. The men who opened fire in Orlando, and Sandy Hook before that, were not using 18th-century muskets; they were using military-style assault weapons capable of a level of violence that the authors of the constitution could not have imagined.
The United States is forced to confront 21st-century violence with 18th-century laws, and the results have not gone well.
Why, then, not just change the laws? The answer here lies in the particularities of American politics. The pro-gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has fiercely opposed any attempts to limit weapons access. They have instead argued for increasing Americans’ access to weapons, and have fought attempts to even study or monitor the impact of gun violence.
While there are opposing lobbies advocating for gun control, they are still playing catch-up, and cannot match the association’s decades of experience. Supporters of the association, meanwhile, have traditionally prioritised gun issues in a way that gun control advocates have not. This imbalance explains why, during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, US President Barack Obama was silent on the issue of gun control, and remained so until the killing of children at the Sandy Hook school. Until then, advocating gun control was not a winning formula for politicians.
But the most important quirk of American politics that prevents gun control from passing lies in the nation’s federalist political system. Authority is divided between state governments and the national government. Within certain limits, states get to decide which weapons can be sold in their state, who can purchase them and if background checks should be required. As the borders between states are not monitored any more than the border between Admiralty and Wan Chai, it is easy for citizens in states with more restrictive gun laws to travel to nearby states and purchase weapons there.
Urbanised states like New York and California tend to have more restrictive gun laws, while more rural states tend to have less restrictive ones.
This distinction between rural and urban states, meanwhile, points to one of the more important dynamics in American politics today.
The Republican Party has increasingly become the party of rural America, while the Democrats dominate in the cities. Gun control laws are far more popular in urban areas, but gun laws limited to urban areas are ineffective, given the ease with which guns can be bought elsewhere.
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This rural/urban split brings the discussion back to the same 18th-century origins of the US Constitution that the second amendment comes from. The vision of small independent farmers resulted in a political system that gives outsized representation to rural states. Any national laws that would limit weapons access for the whole nation would need to pass both houses of Congress.
The US Senate, though, gives equal representation to each state. Populous states like New York and California get two senators each; so do sparsely populated rural states like Wyoming and Mississippi. Gun control laws remain unpopular in rural states, and politicians from those states support any national measure at their own peril. Those states still hold on to the vision of independent famers.
Many Americans are ready for this violence to end. Some basic steps limiting weapons access are very popular, according to opinion polls – steps like making sure that anyone who purchases a firearm must first pass a background check.
But the quirks of the American political system have made it impossible to get even those basic measures passed at the national level. If the murders of 20 children at an elementary school could not change that, the likelihood is that the murders of 50 adults at a gay nightclub will not change that either.
Noah Shusterman is an assistant professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong