From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent
In the wake of several high profile mass shootings in the past couple of years the ownership of high powered semi and fully automatic weapons has come under close scrutiny. The number of voices calling for tight controls on gun ownership has never been higher. At the same time the powerful gun lobby continues to strongly influence lawmakers in Washington. If gun laws are worthy of scrutiny then perhaps the right to bear arms, in its current form at least, may also need to be analyzed more closely than in the past. In this article the role of the NRA will also be discussed.
Although mass killings carried out by individuals seems almost to be routine in the United States, the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut could perhaps provide the catalyst for real and lasting change to gun laws in America. The murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook shocked America in a way that no other similar mass murder has in recent times. It moved the President to call for Congress to pass tough new legislation aimed at restricting the purchase of high powered guns. However the lobbying power of the NRA and a lack of political will eventually ensured that even a watered down version of the proposed restrictions whereby background checks would apply to all gun purchases not just those bought at gun shops, was defeated.
However, for those who want to see tighter gun controls in America there are some positive signs. New, tougher laws have been passed in Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Colorado in recent times. The latter came about as a result of a mass shooting that occurred in a movie theater in Aurora. So it is possible that if enough States pass new gun control laws then Washington will have little choice but to follow suit. This will be difficult as it is hardly surprising that the gun lobby has vigorously opposed these laws. Reuters reported that The Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen (one group that filed a lawsuit opposing the laws in Connecticut) argued that the new legislation was a breach of the Second Amendment and that it was, “..a hasty response…” to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.
The argument surrounding constitutional rights brings us to the crux of this article. The main argument those campaigning for stronger gun laws use is that when the Second Amendment was written there was no such thing as semi or fully automatic weapons and therefore those types of guns should not be available to the public. But if we look further into the Second Amendment it is possible to suggest that it has even less relevance for Americans today. Wikipedia states that the Second Amendment is partially based on the English Bill of Rights (1689). This part of British Law is significant because this was a re-establishment of the right of members of the public (more specifically Protestants) to bear arms for the purposes of self-defense. The key point is that this was not only for the purpose of self-defense but was established in a period of greater conflict when the need to protect yourself was likely to be more important because there were less public officials capable of adequately protecting the public.
Zachary Elkins points out in an excellent New York Times opinion piece that the pro-gun lobby really began to hang on to this concept of self-defense in the 1980’s and has strongly promoted it as their right ever since. But more importantly Elkins also writes that no one is happy with the current status quo. As he says, “…gun enthusiasts fear their rights are under constant threat; gun control advocates point to the danger of illegal guns and easy access to firearms”. Clearly everyone would be happy with change.
Elkins’ article also neatly brings us to another important point. This is the fact that the NRA leadership is out of touch with what the majority of its members (the gun owners it claims to represent) think. It is worth noting that 74% of NRA members support tougher background checks. However in the face of this NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre has been strident in his opposition to any such changes. Interestingly this is despite the fact that in 1999 he stated that he supported background checks. So why is LaPierre so resistant to change now? According to the Violence Policy Center the firearms industry donated around $39 million to the NRA in 2011. As an article The Atlantic pointed out the NRA like to promote themselves as the voice of grass-roots gun owners who are sports shooters, deer hunters and the like. This demonstrates the deep disconnect between LaPierre and the majority of NRA members. As many commentators are beginning to make clear the leadership of the NRA represent hardliners who stand to gain a lot financially by supporting the gun industry.
As someone who lives outside the United States I find it difficult to comprehend America’s gun laws. At the end of the day the ongoing impasse appears to come as a result of the strength of the NRA. However in the wake of Sandy Hook it finally appears there is some real political will to reform gun laws. The new gun laws passed in Connecticut had bipartisan support. Additionally, the disconnect between the views of the NRA leadership and members of the association suggest that even gun owners are willing to support some changes to the law. Given the history of Constitutional challenges it is unlikely that the 2nd Amendment will be changed but it would be one way to once and for all provide clarity and a responsible balance between the wishes of gun owners and those who want tougher restrictions on gun ownership. Without Constitutional change Congress must take the lead and adopt some of the changes being made in different States.
References and Further Reading
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_of_Rights_1689 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/23/us-usa-guns-connecticut-idUSBRE94M15D20130523 ttp://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/18/us-usa-guns-colorado-idUSBRE94H02L20130518 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/rewrite-the-second-amendment.html?_r=0 (This excellent New York Times opinion piece is well worth reading.) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/whom-does-the-nra-really-speak-for/266373/