It is difficult for non-Americans to understand the United States’ relationship with guns. Even those who know about the Second Amendment are perplexed by the insistence of gun rights supporters that a clause with several caveats written over two centuries ago in a particular political environment could be seen today as a blanket endorsement of gun ownership with no limitations. More puzzling still is the gap between public opinion — which shows majority support for some restrictions on the ability to purchase a gun — and a political system that has proven unable to take any action to that end.
That inaction is even more incomprehensible given the scale of the tragedy created by the easy availability of guns. It is estimated that there are 40 million more guns than citizens of the U.S., or more than 350 million guns. More than 100,000 people have been killed as a result of gun violence over the past decade in America, and millions more have been the victim of assaults, robberies and other crimes involving a gun. During that same period, hundreds of thousands of other people committed suicide with a gun and nearly half a million people suffered other gun injuries. Gun control advocates note that guns in the home are 22 times more likely to be involved in accidental shootings, homicides or suicide attempts than acts of self-defense.
The alarming growth in the number of mass shootings has focused attention on the need for action. Depending on the criteria used, there were either four or six such incidents in the U.S. in 2015. While any attack of this type is tragic, the most horrific incident was the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012 which claimed the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children. The shooting of 14 people by two Islamic State supporters in San Bernadino, California, last month forced U.S. President Barack Obama to take action.
Earlier this month, Obama announced a series of executive actions that aim to reduce gun violence. The measures include the requirement that anyone who sells firearms must get a license and conduct background checks on buyers; additional funding for tracking illegal online gun trafficking and conducting background checks; and $500 million to improve mental health services. While clearly frustrated by the failure to address this problem, Obama acknowledged that the primary responsibility for dealing with it rests with legislators, and that he can only fill gaps. Indeed, much of the reaction to the announcement has focused on how limited the steps are and how small the impact will likely be.
In fact, one of the chief criticisms of any gun control measure is that it will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals; as the bumper sticker reads, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Apart from the tautology of that bon mot, the logic is weak. All laws are broken, but that does not mean societies have no use for laws.
It is telling that the National Rifle Association (NRA), the relentless defender of gun rights and opponent of any gun restrictions, was not present at a televised Town Hall meeting that Obama held before the announcement, even though its headquarters were nearby the meeting place. Officially the organization chose not to participate in “gun control theater,” but the likely real reason is the organization’s understanding that its shrill rhetoric and conspiracy theories — it insists that any gun control is a first step toward confiscation of all guns and Obama’s true goal is a gun-free country— are effective only when the object of its extremism is not present to challenge those assertions.
U.S. inaction is even more inexplicable given that the vast majority of Americans — including a majority of gun owners — back limited steps to address this problem. A poll taken before the president’s Town Hall meeting showed that two-thirds of Americans, 63 percent of gun owners, and even 51 percent of Republicans favor the proposed executive actions on gun control.
The problem with those numbers — and they are consistent with countless other polls — is that they do not register salience — the intensity of an issue to voters. So, while large numbers of voters back restrictions on gun ownership, that issue does not determine how they vote. For gun rights supporters, however, no issue matters more. This difference in interest explains how the NRA manages to maintain, in Obama’s words, “a stranglehold on Congress,” despite the popularity of some restrictions.
The immediate reaction to the president’s announcement has been a rush to buy more guns; this occurs each time there is a mass shooting or some similar incident. This happens not because people feel a need for protection but because they fear the dam may break and they may lose access to firearms. To protect themselves against that eventuality — no matter how far-fetched — a growing number of jurisdictions are loosening restrictions on carrying weapons, in the belief, again frequently found on bumper stickers, that “the best protection against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Sadly, and it says a great deal about the U.S. today, such simplistic reasoning counts for more than a steadily mounting number of tragedies and an appalling body count.