(This is Part 2 of a 2-Part series on the anatomy of gun violence and mass shooting. Part 1 can be found here)
Estimates vary but on one point all observers agree. Gun-crazy America is the only country in the world where guns outnumber people. The U.S. has 120 privately owned guns for every 100 residents. (Small Arms Survey, 2017). Not surprisingly, every year 40,000 people lose their lives at the barrel of a gun. And when Americans aren’t killing each other, they are killing themselves. Suicide by gun accounts for 60% of the total number of gun deaths. Children in the U.S. fare even worse. Gun violence being the second leading cause of death for all children. For black children, guns are the leading cause of death. Gun violence is so pervasive in the U.S. that even though Americans are only 5% of the world’s population, they own 46% of the world’s guns. (Small Arms Survey).
What is it like to live in a country where on average one mass shooting (four or more people killed or injured) occurs every day? (Giffords Law Center) Welcome to the world’s sole superpower. Beyond the physical pain and emotional grief, the mourning and sense of loss, there’s an actual price to pay. One estimate puts the toll of gun violence at $700 for each American annually. (Giffords Law Center)
Of all the shocking statistics associated with gun violence in the U.S., one stands out —the increase in violent events over the last fifty years. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) more people in the U.S. were killed by guns in 2017 than in any year since 1968. Why 1968? The very year when a vicious war waged against a peasant nation came home to incite bloody violence on U.S. streets. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were tragic byproducts of the curse of endless war. The U.S. found itself beleaguered on all sides. Over one-half million Americans conscripted and sent to Vietnam, 58,000 who never returned, at least one million dead Vietnamese and violent uprisings in many U.S. cities. It would take forty-seven years amidst a sharp uptick in U.S. imperial wars to break the 1968 record of domestic gun deaths, at the same time the Obama administration was ramping up the two wars it inherited and starting five more. Coincidence?
What could have slowed the carnage? Gun control laws have proven to be effective in other countries. In 1996, England confronted a mass school shooting when sixteen children and one teacher were gunned down. Almost immediately Parliament tightened gun ownership laws, improved the gun licensing system and outlawed most handguns. Result: not one school shooting since 1996 and the extinction of non-school shootings for a decade (since 2009).
In 2012 when a gunman murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, U.S. political leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce gun violence.
When it came to voting for bills banning the sale of assault weapons and requiring universal background checks, there were few takers. The bills were quietly laid to rest.
Did the U.S. public raise an outcry, contact their representatives demanding action? Not exactly. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, although 92% of Americans favored extending background checks to gun buyers at private gun shows, 74% opposed a ban on hand guns and 51% opposed banning assault weapons. With a do-nothing Congress and an apathetic public, mass shootings continued unabated. In Las Vegas in 2017 fifty-eight people were killed attending a concert and in 2018 a Florida high school found itself in the headlines when fourteen students and three administrators were gunned down. Still no action on federal gun control legislation or background checks. Call it America being America with all U.S. elected leaders hewing to the script of obeisance to the second amendment and its rich and powerful backers.
For decades, gun control legislation has had a checkered career in Congress and the While House. In 1968 after three decades of inaction, Congress finally passed the Safe Streets Act, a watered-down version of the original legislation which sought to ban all mail order sales of rifles, shotguns and hand guns. In the version of the bill which finally landed on the president’s desk, rifles and shot guns could still be legally purchased through the mail. The bill as passed was so innocuous that the NRA actually congratulated lawmakers— “the measure…appears to be one that sportsmen [NRA-speak for gun owners] …can live with.” President Johnson for once told it like it is “this bill…falls short. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns…there are over 160 million guns in the country…more firearms than families [fifty years later there are 128 million families in the U.S. and 393 million guns] …The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation [but] the voices of a…gun lobby. While his candor is admirable, it is significant that like most presidents who defy the oligarchs, he chose to speak out when he was he was already a “lame duck” who no longer had to rely on major donors like the gun lobby.
A much better bill took twenty-six years to be pass. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (aka the Brady Bill) included background checks for those purchasing guns. Unfortunately, in a last minute gift to the gun lobby, most of whom were major donors to the campaigns of a majority of senators and congress people, the bill made an exception for guns purchased at private shows.
The next year, in 1994, a bill that will ‘live in infamy” and may have caused the Clinton debacle of 2016, hove into view. The $30 billion Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, written by the current front runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination, “Uncle Joe” Biden, was gargantuan —creating 60 new death penalty offenses; making prisoners ineligible for Pell grants (higher education scholarships); allocating $9 billion for new prisons; instituting a sex offender registry that to this day insures lifetime stigmatization of the convicted; implementing a “three strikes” bill for mandatory life sentences after three convictions; appropriating money to hire 100,000 new police officers and build additional boot camps and juvenile prisons. A bill whose provisions were primarily punitive, with very little money or attention paid to rehabilitation contained a noteworthy subsection entitled “The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms User Protection Act” (aka AWB – Assault Weapons Ban). Out of a deeply flawed response to a rising crime rate (mirroring an increasingly warlike U.S. response all over the globe) which resulted in a spike in mass incarceration rates, primarily among people of color, a little ray of sunlight emerged. The AWB prohibited the manufacture, transfer or possession of “semi-automatic assault weapons.” Since virtually all mass shootings involved assault weapons, this provision gave new teeth to the drive to curb the slaughter of innocent Americans. But there was a huge catch. With the enormous sums of money the NRA was and still is willing to dole out to “right-thinking” mostly Republican candidates ($54 million during the 2016 election cycle), a “sunset provision” was slipped into the AWB terminating it in 2004. Not much has changed in twenty-five years. More than one-half of incumbent congress people in the 116th congress (the current crop) accept campaign contributions from the NRA.
Having rolled up their sleeves and passed one of the most punitive bills in the annals of U.S. law-enforcement, one year later with Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate, Congress went one step further refusing to appropriate funds to allow the CDC to continue its research into the health effects of gun violence. For good measure, they added a prohibition against the agency advocating or promoting gun control.
Then the Supreme Court got into the act. In 2008, in a 5-4 decision, five conservative justices struck down a District of Columbia law that banned the registration of handguns by civilians (District of Columbia v. Heller). Of little concern to the justices apparently was the desperate plight of DC residents living in the city with the highest rate of gun deaths in the U.S.
It is clear that all three branches of government have done their part to make gun control a non-starter in the U.S. From Congress to the Supreme Court to the White House, resistance to background checks and assault weapons bans’, reluctance to outlaw gun possession by felons and domestic abusers and unwillingness to pass gun licensing laws have led to spiraling rates of murder and mayhem on America’s streets. Four months after the high school shooting in Parkland Florida that resulted in seventeen deaths, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that the Trump Department of Education was convening a Commission to study violence in public schools but would not consider the role of guns. “That [issue of guns] is not part of the commission’s charge per se. We are actually studying school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school.” To which a stunned Senator Patrick Leahy observed — “So you are studying gun violence, but not considering the role of guns?”
Growing public impatience with the inability of the government to make progress curbing mass shootings is beginning to have an effect. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld an assault weapons ban in Chicago — “If a ban on semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines reduces the perceived risk from a mass shooting, and makes the public feel safer as a result, that’s a substantial benefit.”
This week Walmart announced it will no longer sell ammunition for assault rifles or handguns in its stores (In the 1990’s Walmart stopped selling handguns and in 2015 it extended the ban to semi-automatic weapons. It continued to sell hunting rifles. In 2018, after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, it stopped selling weapons to those under 21). The grocery chain Kroger’s made a similar announcement.
If you were expecting a similar display of courage from your elected representatives, think again. In an interview, Majority Leader McConnell made it clear where he stood on the “pesky” issue of gun control legislation — “if the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor…” As far as cynical ploys go, this one has to land on the top of the heap. It’s a safe bet that President Trump, who received over $30 million from the NRA for his 2016 campaign, will never give McConnell the signal he claims he’s waiting for.
As elected representatives shilly-shally, public opinion in favor of gun control legislation is mounting. According to recent polls, 70% of Republicans now favor banning assault weapons (Politico/Morning Consult poll) flying in the face of President Trump’s repeated assurances that “there is no political appetite” for a second bite at the assault weapons ban apple.
As we were posting this piece, it happened again. Where else but in Texas, number one among all U.S states in the number of registered guns. On August 30th seven people died in Odessa, Texas and twenty-one were wounded in the second mass shooting in Texas in a month. The rest of the country isn’t faring much better with fifty-three people killed in mass shootings in
August. Have we learned any lessons from this carnage? Judge for yourself. The day after the shooting, new Texas laws went into effect making it easier for Texans to carry guns — on school property, in rental apartments, in foster homes, and most improbably in houses of worship.
Will Congress ever wake up and enact gun registration laws and ban assault rifles permanently? The issue has been on the table for over fifty years. Almost certainly not, as long as Mitch McConnell, whose lifetime contributions from the NRA are close to $1 million, is in charge and 302 congressional incumbents accept NRA campaign contributions. It’s not like our elected officials don’t know how to make a dent in those grim statistics. They’ve known for fifty years — “How many more people must die before the American public, the Federal Government and the Congress call in unison for effective firearms legislation?… It happened last week. It happened this week. It will happen next week. And it will continue to happen until there are stricter gun laws.” (Senator Thomas Dodd, 50 years ago)
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