Comment: Constitution deadlock may derail meaningful American gun reform

Caroline Mortimer looks at the constitutional complexities that hinder the moral arguments for gun control in the wake of a series of tragedies.

During my early childhood growing up in Northern California in the mid-nineties, my ballet class was next to a gun shop. It is this bizarre juxtaposition of a six-year-old girl’s innocence and lethal weaponry that lies at the heart of American’s complex relationship with self-defence.

In 2011, there were 8,583 murders involving firearms out of a total of 12,664. This means approximately 68 per cent of all wrongful killings in the USA were caused by guns.

Yet despite frequent attempts by campaigners and politicians America still maintains some of the laxest gun laws in the OECD.

The shooting of 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, with an automatic rifle last month has once again reignited the debate that temporarily flared after the Aurora shootings in July. The horrendous details of Adam Lanza’s killing spree have once again drawn the worldwide condemnation of the American constitution’s sacred second amendment which guarantees the right to bear arms.

It seems the public anger has once again reignited the clamour for gun control and senior senator for California, Dianne Feinstein, plans to announce a new, tougher version of the 1994 assault rifles ban which she says will get the “weapons of war off the streets of our cities”.

In an interview with Fox News, she dismissed the NRA’s counter proposal to introduce armed guards in every classroom. She said a third of schools already had armed guards, including Columbine High School, who were unable to stop the shootings there in 1999.

Barack Obama pledged his support for the bill back in December, saying it would be his top priority for 2013:

“The question then becomes whether we are actually shook up enough by what happened here that it does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts away

“This is something that, you know, that was the worst day of my presidency. And it’s not something that I want to see repeated.”

With the President’s stated approval, international outrage and a nation reeling in shock, it should, in theory, be easy for this legislation to get through Congress. However, in a country where gun ownership is mythologised to the point where pink versions of military style assault rifles are marketed to women, gun control legislation continues to be politically toxic.

At the end of 2012, immediately after the shootings at Sandy Hook, gun sales surged across the USA as people stockpiled weapons in fear of Obama and Feinstein’s proposed crackdown.

The threat of gun control, however, is not the only factor driving the sale of firearms in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Sales of guns typically go up after a nationally-reported gun shooting – requests for firearm permits went up by 41 per cent in Colorado in the wake of the Aurora cinema shootings. Similarly, gun sales increased by 60 per cent in a single day after the attempted assassination of Democratic representative Gabrielle Giffords and murder of six others in January 2011.

Speaking to The Guardian, a gun shop owner from Portland, Oregon, Karl Durkheimer, said:

“There are two kinds of Americans. People who want to take care of themselves and those who want to be taken care of. The ones who want to take care of themselves are the ones who come into my shop.”

The ideal of the lone ranger, the rugged survivalist, is endlessly romanticised alongside the cherished but ill-defined notion of uniquely American ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ from the machinations of an over-powerful state run through to the core of the American psyche.

The often cited second amendment promises:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

It was written by the founding fathers in 1791 after the end of the War of Independence when they still faced the threat of a British attempt to get their former colonies back. Some constitutional experts and commentators suggest that instead of protecting the individual’s rights to bear arms, it is instead protection for states to raise militias independent of the federal government.

This interpretation of the amendment held sway for most of the republic’s history until the increasing politicisation of the NRA during the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981. They previously had been devoted to campaigns like gun safety but soon started campaigning for the revisionist interpretation of the amendment. This resulted in the historic Supreme Court ruling in June 2008 in favour of the individual interpretation.

In terms of the American political landscape, the NRA is a colossus. It only has 4 million members and reportedly spent more than $17 million on candidates that were mostly defeated during the election in November, but they are still arguably the most powerful lobby group in America.

However, there is possibly light at the end of the tunnel. One hundred and fifty one people have died as a result of mass shootings in 2012. Despite the imagery of the lone ranger arming themselves against uncertainty remaining popular in parts of America, particularly it seems in swing states, the actual number of households owning guns seems to have declined.

Although there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the USA over the past 30 years, with three quarters of the guns used obtained legally, there was still polling evidence suggesting in the past that the majority of Americans were mildly in favour of little or no regulation during the past decade.

However, this is now starting to change with the most up-to-date Gallup poll suggesting 58 per cent of people now support increased gun controls and there has been a general upward trend in support over the past year. These are the first real positive steps towards making a meaningful change to gun violence in the US since the assault rifles ban was allowed to lapse in 2004.

With increased public support for the measure and potential corporate support (private equity firm Cerberus has announced they are selling their controlling stake in arms manufacturer Freedom party in the wake of Newtown), the tide appears to be turning.

However, even if this bill could get through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives it still faces an almost inevitable Supreme Court challenge. Unless there is a further revision of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the second amendment as a reflection of state’s rather than individual’s rights, or even a constitutional amendment (which is unlikely in the current political climate), the bill has little chance of making it permanently into the statute book.

Unless American politicians can get over the archaic language of the 18th-century document and start to talk a modern, ‘living’ constitution, more 21st-century lives will continue to be lost.

See also:

“Blood on your hands”: Sick NRA plumb new depths with call for guns in schoolsDecember 21st, 2012

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.