By Matthijs Le Loux and Robbert van der Linde
May 24, 2023 at 7:17 PM
One year ago today, a mass shooting took place in the American town of Uvalde. At least 21 people, including 19 children, were shot that day. Since then, the call for stricter gun laws in the US has been louder than ever. But the powerful gun lobby and political divisions hold back change.
An earlier version of this article appeared in 2019 and 2022 on NU.nl. A year after the Uvalde shooting, we updated and republished it.
Mass shootings are a regular occurrence these days, but the number of fatalities is dwarfed by the rest of US gun violence. In 2016, for example, a total of 14,415 murders were committed with firearms. Only 71 of those victims died in a mass shooting.
But those shootings are getting deadlier: eight of the 10 most fatal mass shootings in US history have occurred in the current and previous decade. The deadliest shooting in the US took place at a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017. Sixty people, including the perpetrator, were killed.
The deadliest shootings in the United States. Photo: NU.nl/Bart-Jan Dekker
NRA was little concerned with politics in the beginning
The “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” defense is largely due to the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The powerful lobby organization uniting gun owners and the gun industry was founded in 1871. The goal was to teach Americans the art of marksmanship and to promote responsible firearm use. In its first hundred years of existence, the NRA was little concerned with politics and sport shooters and hunters were its main target group.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt poses with members of the NRA in 1933. Photo: Getty Images
NRA turned into a very active lobby club under Carter
That attitude changed in the 1970s. The US Congress passed the Gun Control Act in 1968, a law that introduced rules for arms trade across state borders. Initially, the NRA management hardly objected to this. But a faction emerged within the organization that believed the NRA should focus on opposing stricter gun laws. It was led by Harlon Carter, the head of the association’s lobbying arm.
Many of Carter’s supporters within the NRA were fired in 1975. But a year later he and his supporters staged a coup during the annual NRA congress. They adjusted the internal rules and voted out the management. Carter became CEO and led the organization until 1985.
Under his guiding hand, the NRA morphed into a highly politically active lobby group, vehemently opposed to any curtailment of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: the right to bear arms. That article states that this is necessary to maintain a “well-organized civilian militia”.
Firearms in the US
There are an estimated 350 to 400 million firearms in the US. 40 percent of Americans live in a household with firearms. A total of 39,773 gun deaths in 2017 (two-thirds were suicides). Each state has its own gun laws. California has the strictest gun laws, Mississippi has the most lenient rules. Stricter gun laws lead to fewer gun deaths.
From hunting and sport shooting to personal protection
The NRA succeeded in linking fundamental rights in the American public perception to individual gun ownership.
Initially, the organization argued that gun laws threatened the American hunting tradition. The easy access to firearms for violent criminals and people with serious mental health problems was the price Americans pay for their freedom, Carter said.
Soaring crime rates became the main issue for Republican Party politicians during the 1980s. The NRA followed suit and increasingly turned its attention to gun ownership to protect home and hearth against criminals. “Should You Shoot a Rapist Before He Slits Your Throat?” read one of the NRA’s newspaper ads of the time.
The 1990s brought an evolution of that theme. Democrat Bill Clinton challenged his Republican rival, incumbent President George HW Bush, by insisting on the need for tougher handgun regulations and a ban on automatic assault rifles.
The NRA told its members to protect themselves against an increasingly tyrannical federal government that wanted to establish a police state. With slick advertising campaigns, the gun lobby continued to spread that message. The association even ran the television station NRATV for some time, which was regularly discredited because of the militant tone of the messages that were broadcast there.
Possible measures with some degree of support
A background check for buyers. A purchase ban for people with a criminal record and/or mental health problems. A ban on automatic weapons. A ban on accessories, such as high-capacity magazines.
Gun ownership divides the US along political lines
The NRA spends millions every year on lobbying. This is customary in the US and therefore does not fully explain the great political influence of the association. For example, the US National Realtor Association spends five to ten times more on its own lobbies.
What makes the NRA so powerful is its ability to mobilize gun-loving voters. The association chooses its fights carefully and supports gun advocates during primaries. Combined with its long history and extensive list of contacts in Washington, an NRA endorsement or rejection can make or break a political career.
After race, gun ownership is the most divisive political issue in the US. Studies show that it has become a predictor of party preference. In the 2016 election, 63 percent of households with guns voted for Republican Donald Trump, while 65 percent of households without guns voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Gun ownership is also a fairly reliable indicator of origin: 83 percent of households with at least one firearm are light-skinned.
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NRA is no longer an insurmountable obstacle
Yet the power of the NRA is not what it used to be. Proponents of stricter gun laws are getting better at organizing themselves. In addition, they receive more funding. Michael Bloomberg, among others, supports them. This billionaire and former mayor of New York founded the lobby group Everytown for Gun Safety in 2006. Victims of mass shootings are also increasingly making themselves heard with a call for stricter legislation.
At the same time, the NRA is struggling internally. One of the club’s icons, former marine and media personality Oliver North, accused the rest of the board of directors of financial irregularities. He, in turn, was accused of preparing a palace coup and kicked out of the NRA. The board and Ackerman McQueen, the ad agency that provided the NRA’s media strategy for decades, are embroiled in an acrimonious divorce.
An American carries an AR-15 assault rifle that the anti-gun movement has wanted to ban for years. Photo: Getty Images
Little progress due to political stranglehold
In the wake of the 2019 Dayton and El Paso shootings, even the Republican Party no longer seemed impervious to calls for change. Senate President Mitch McConnell said he was open to background checks to prevent people with serious mental illness from buying guns. That would be the largest expansion of federal gun laws in decades.
Joe Biden has been campaigning for stricter gun laws even before he took office as president. Due to the political situation in the US, a president cannot change such legislation on his own. Major changes have so far failed to materialize, largely due to the inability of the US Congress to agree on federal legislation.
In 2021, the House of Representatives, in which the Democrats have a majority, passed a bill that would make background checks mandatory for commercial gun sales. After weeks of negotiations, that proposal was adopted in a much watered-down form by the Senate. These were modest provisions that help states keep guns out of the hands of people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
After every new mass shooting or school shooting, the call for stricter gun laws becomes louder. A real historic breakthrough is therefore still not forthcoming. The harsh reality is that in the 365 days following the shooting in Uvalde, at least 600 more mass shootings have taken place in the US.
This is to the great frustration of American citizens, who, according to various surveys, are overwhelmingly in favor of stricter background checks, regardless of their political affiliation.
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