Each year my module on the history of the US Bill of Rights includes a discussion about gun rights and gun control in the United States. Inevitably this elicits lively debate, particularly between students who have not spent time in America and those who have first-hand experience of living there.
How, students often ask, can a country experience so many mass shooting events and yet fail to limit access to, or ban outright, firearms? The answer is complex, tied up with issues of American history and culture, self-identity, historic suspicion of government and contemporary political dynamics.
Despite President Barack Obama’s obvious frustration in response to the shooting last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the reality is that little is likely to change regarding gun control legislation in the near future.
According to The Washington Post, there are approximately 357 million guns in the US, equivalent to more than one per American. While most gun owners are responsible and careful, and react in horror to crimes like that in Oregon, there is a deeply embedded fear that allowing the government to regulate something is the first step towards total abolition. Indeed this unease dates back to the days of the American Revolution and is embedded right in the Constitution.
There is a staunchly held belief that to give the government an inch on guns, such as a ban on handguns or assault weapons, and they’ll take a mile, ultimately outlawing any and all gun ownership. Look at the statements of groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) – this is fundamental to their rhetoric.
Add to that the current politics. Gun rights supporters, especially those who oppose all regulations on gun ownership, are overwhelmingly Republican and Obama is not. In 2008 and 2012, groups like GunBanObama.com and the NRA ran campaign ads that claimed Obama would “come for your guns.” Given the current polarisation in American politics, and with a presidential election looming, no Republican politician will want to be seen to either stand with a Democratic president – on gun control or almost anything else – or oppose the well-funded and politically-influential gun rights lobby.
Another key issue is self-defence. For every Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or now Umpqua there are real, concrete examples of ordinary Americans who have saved their lives or the lives of others by being armed. It’s hard to argue against someone who says, “If I hadn’t had a gun, I’d be dead.” In 2008 the US Supreme Court gave support to this view, holding that the Second Amendment to the Constitution embodied a historically recognised right to self-defence.
Gun rights groups have effectively used the self-defence argument to paint gun control advocates as uncaring elitists out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans on the frontline of crime-riddled neighbourhoods. Obama tried in his press conference to appeal to “responsible gun owners” to support a push for gun control legislation, but the reality is that until gun control advocates can find an effective way to counteract the emotional response to the self-defence argument, they are fighting a losing battle.
This context goes a long way toward explaining America’s reluctance to effect real change on gun control. But set against the numbers – some 280,000 Americans killed by guns in the last decade – it’s no wonder my students remain puzzled. Those who have spent time in America have a more nuanced understanding of a situation that appears so peculiar to those outside its borders, but it’s fair to say they’re no less frustrated by the debate.
Sadly, history tells us there will be a short, if heated, debate about guns in the US over the next week or so. It will generate conflict but little in the way of action. People will mourn the loss of life in Umpqua, as they have done after every mass shooting event in recent history, but no one should realistically expect anything to change.
US constitutional historian Dr Emma Long is a lecturer in American Studies in the School of Art, Media and American Studies