By The Economist
Apr 4th 2015
WHEN a young man walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 and murdered 20 small children and six staff with a Bushmaster rifle from his mother’s gun collection, some wondered if a tipping-point had been reached. Surely America would now enact laws to keep lethal weapons out of the wrong hands?
No chance. Bids to curb sales of the most powerful guns and largest-capacity magazines failed. Congress even refused to expand the number of gun-buyers checked for histories of crime or severe mental illness—though 90% of Americans support such checks. In March this year federal regulators dropped a bid to ban a type of bullet that can pierce body armour, of the sort that police often wear, after 285 Republican and seven Democratic members of Congress objected.
The gun lobby’s winning record has done little to make its members less angry. The National Rifle Association (NRA), a deep-pocketed group with 5m members, accuses Barack Obama’s administration of a “relentless assault” on the constitutional right of citizens to keep and bear arms. Actual evidence of federal tyranny is a bit meagre—in part because the NRA is so good at whipping Washington politicians into line. No matter. A current “trending” alert from the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action sounds the alarm about a rule tweak for hunters taking guns on overseas trips, who—rather than filling out a form at home—may now have to wait at the airport while a customs officer enters their details into a computer. This, the NRA asserts, raises alarming questions about hunters’ information being stored by the feds, and is part of a “pattern of abuse” suggesting that Mr Obama’s final years in office may be the “most challenging” in the history of American gun-ownership.
Meanwhile children keep getting shot at school, sometimes by other children. In the first two years after Newtown there were at least 95 shootings at American schools and colleges, resulting in 45 deaths, according to a tally by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control campaign. After Newtown a few states moved to curb sales of the deadliest weapons. Since 2012 five states have expanded background checks on gun buyers, closing loopholes left by Congress (a bill proposed on March 26th would make Oregon the sixth). But many more states have relaxed firearms laws.
Gun-advocates do not win all their fights in the states, but 2015 still looks like a banner year for them. Republicans enjoyed sweeping wins at the state level in elections last November, allowing the party’s representatives to advance cherished goals during the short, intense legislative sessions under way in state capitals. In lots of places, those goals involve more guns.
Often, gun-lovers hew to a familiar conservative line: that crime is deterred when upstanding citizens pack heat. Florida is debating a “school safety” bill allowing superintendents to choose staff or volunteers with police or military backgrounds to serve as armed school guards. Iowa is pondering a law that would let children younger than 14 use pistols and revolvers (with adult supervision, legislators hasten to add). Republicans in Arkansas want to allow armed judges in courtrooms. Bills were proposed this year in 16 states to overturn gun bans on college campuses, and remain under debate in a dozen states.
Some argue that arming female students will deter rapists. As Michele Fiore, a Republican assemblywoman in Nevada, said to the New York Times: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them?” Others retort that arming potential rapists might be less helpful. William McRaven, the new chancellor of the University of Texas System, declared that concealed handguns would make his 210,000 students less safe. As a former navy Seal, Admiral McRaven is hard to portray as a hand-wringing squish, and “campus carry” may well not pass the Texas legislature. To soothe activists for whom gun rights are a test of conservative purity, Republican leaders seem likely to embrace the once-arcane issue of “open carry”, allowing the roughly 825,000 Texans with concealed-handgun licences to carry pistols and revolvers visibly (Texans already carry rifles without restriction).
Some would like to go much further. The fieriest arguments of 2015 involve “constitutional carry”—the claim that the constitution’s second amendment is the only permit Americans need, allowing citizens to carry a concealed or visible gun without any licence, checks or training. Such laws already exist in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Vermont and Wyoming. Legislators in Kansas just approved a version. So did lawmakers in West Virginia and Montana. The governor of West Virginia, a Democrat in his final term, vetoed a bill (though, like several rural states, West Virginia allows open carry without a permit). Montana’s governor, a Democrat, vetoed a bill too, though his state allows permit-less guns outside cities. Maine is weighing a constitutional carry bill.
Lethal force for all
The NRA can never declare victory, for then what would be the point of it? After each concession, it demands more. Some day, perhaps, it will ask for something so outrageous that it sparks a backlash. But for now it strikes a chord. For the first time in two decades a new poll by the Pew Research Centre found more Americans supporting gun rights than gun controls. How can this be so, when such a huge majority favour background checks? The answer is that background checks are tools of the state and trust in the state has plunged in the past decade, notably on the right where it blends with loathing for Mr Obama. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s charismatic front man, told a conservative crowd in February that when criminals attack, or wives, sisters and daughters face assault through “a kicked-down door”, “laws can’t protect you…You’re on your own.” That is the authentic voice of the gun lobby in 2015. Fear smothers rational debate. It is meant to.