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Amid Successive Mass Shootings, America Is No Closer To Passing Gun Control Laws

15 Jun 2022
By Alexandra Filindra
19 Feb 2018 demonstration was organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Source: Lorie Shaull.

The American news cycle is once more dominated by mass shootings. But despite a Democrat president and control of Congress, gun reform remains a pipe dream.

Two mass shootings, one at a supermarket in an African American neighbourhood in Buffalo, New York, and another at a primary school in Uvalde, Texas have once again forced the twin issues of gun rights and gun violence into the national political agenda. The tragic but expected result of the liberalisation of American gun laws has been a steady increase in mass shootings and little children’s gun injuries and deaths. The casualties of gun violence increased during the pandemic by double-digits as gun purchases mounted. The Gun Violence Archive, an organisation that tracks incidents of gun violence, reported 260 mass shootings and 155 child deaths and 323 injuries in the first five months of 2022 alone.

Given the increased toll in human life, including little children, how likely is it that we are finally at a turning point and Congress may pass stricter gun regulations?

The Good News

There are some hopeful signs for gun reform. First, an overwhelming majority of Americans support expanding background checks to all gun purchases and barring people with mental illness from gun ownership, while two thirds support a federal database of all gun purchases and bans on military-style assault weapons and high capacity ammunition.

Second, Democrats in Congress report confidence that a bipartisan bill is in the works and could get through the Symplegades rocks that is the Senate filibuster. Finally, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) has been weakened in recent years because of rampant infighting and court challenges.

The Bad News

Still, observers should be cautious. Any proposed gun ownership regulations will have to clear the hurdle of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in DC v. Heller and whatever is coming this summer in NY Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen.

America has always had easier access to firearms than most Western societies. Easy access has been further liberalised by Republican governors and legislatures since the 2008 Heller decision.

In that case, the Court set aside more than a hundred years of precedent to decide that Americans had “an individual right” to own a firearm in the home for protection. Since Heller and its 2010 extension in McDonald v. Chicago, states have removed “impediments” to gun ownership, such as permit and training requirements, especially for concealed carry, and have expanded the ability of individuals to carry firearms outside the home and in the public domain.

Some justices wanted to go even further and they may well do so in the highly anticipated pending case NY Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen which may decide whether, and under what conditions, Americans have a right to carry open and concealed weapons outside their homes.

The Obstacle of Partisan Polarisation

In contemporary, hyper-partisan American politics, it is not majority opinion that counts, but the opinion of highly-motivated primary voters. Gun rights enthusiasts tend to be older, white, and male. These are groups that vote at higher rates than others. Furthermore, they tend to be “single-issue” voters: they evaluate candidates only on gun positions. Party primaries are generally low participation elections that attract only the most faithful and committed of partisan voters. Data shows that only about ten percent of registered Republicans vote in primaries.

And that is not all. My research shows that whites’ opposition to gun control tends to be motivated by social identities and outgroup attitudes, and threat to these identities is easy to unleash. Given that most single-issue gun rights voters currently affiliate with the Republican Party, Republican candidates have very good reason to worry that a vote for gun control is tantamount to a credible primary challenge.

Furthermore, unlike what advocates hope, my research suggests that the shock and anger associated with mass shootings may force partisans to double-down on their preferred policy solutions. Survey data suggests that Republicans are more likely to insist on arming teachers and further liberalising gun laws, based on the popular (and clearly erroneous) dictum promoted by gun rights activists, “More Guns, Less Crime.”

Asymmetric Intensity Plays a Role too

Equally problematic is that Democratic and independent voters who do support gun control, are not single-issue voters. Research shows that the gun control movement has been unsuccessful in winning the hearts, minds, and votes of Democratic voters because for them, gun control is not an identity-related issue. They like it and support it, but it is not what motivates them to write letters to their elected officials and cast votes in elections. This asymmetry in intensity plays in the favour of gun rights activists. Republican candidates have little fear that independents will vote against them in the general election because of gun control.

The NRA’s Incorporation into the Republican Party Brought Gun Absolutism to the Party’s Platform

Despite serious setbacks, rumours of the NRA’s demise are certainly premature. Research shows that the association has become an integral part of the Republican Party and the relationship grew stronger during the Trump years. Today, the NRA’s absolutist position on guns is the official position of many in the party.

For example, Republican firebrands like Lauren Boebert, have expressed such absolutist positions. In the wake of the recent shootings, others have been encouraged to ignore the issue and talk about inflation, or use racial dog whistles such as “crime in Chicago” (a city with a large Black population) and other red herrings.

More importantly, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has successfully blocked gun control legislation that has periodically emerged—and McConnell is very good at what he does, especially with an election looming.

An Unpopular President Doesn’t Help

Sometimes, reform requires the firm hand of a popular president. The American presidency is the moral focal point of the nation and as such, the President has a powerful bully-pulpit and can set the political agenda. Lyndon Johnson, although weakened by Vietnam, had such a mastery of the political process that he forced the Gun Control Act of 1968 through Congress days before the end of his tenure.

However, Joe Biden entered the Oval Office weakened by the false narratives about “the stolen 2020 election” promoted by Trump and his supporters. A series of difficult problems from the bungled exit in Afghanistan, to high gas prices, to the war in Ukraine, have weakened his public support. The president’s approval now stands at 41 percent according to Gallup. This makes it difficult to pressure the opposition for concessions on guns.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

These political dynamics suggest that in this highly polarised political climate where access to guns has become a litmus test for a portion of the electorate, the Republican Party has adopted absolutist positions, the President does not have strong national approval, and there are many political distractions, it is highly unlikely that a divided Senate will deliver a gun control law for the President to sign. It is even less likely that such a bill will include significant regulatory changes –such as an assault weapons ban—with the potential to curb mass shootings.

More likely than not, America will continue on a path of growing gun violence. More children’s bodies will be ripped to shreds by assault weapons’ bullets—unrecognisable except for elements of their clothing—with politicians offering little more than “thoughts and prayers.”

Alexandra Filindra (@afilindra) is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has done extensive research on gun politics in America. Her book, Race, Rights, and Rifles: The Historical Origins of White Americans’ Obsession with Guns is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.