The Lack of Progress on Gun Control

by Mark Dunlea, GPNYS Executive Committee Member

Pointing out in 1982 that John Lennon probably would still be alive if he had lived in his home country of England or his wife’s nation of Japan generated the most media coverage I received in my race for Congress.

The NRA repeated the normal mantra that people, not guns, kill people. So we have spent thirty years not getting guns off the street but enacting tougher laws to punish people after they do bad things with guns. The end result – more guns are used to kill more people.

There was some brief flurry around handgun control after President Reagan was nearly assassinated. A few reforms were enacted. Back to business as usual.

Now we are discussing whether it would make sense to stop allowing people to possess automatic weapons whose only real purpose it to kill a lot of people really fast.

When I was in law school in the mid-1970s those who thought the 2nd amendment gave individuals the right to own guns were generally dismissed as the lunatic fringe. That legal argument had been repeatedly rejected by the courts for more than 300 years.

It is disturbing, though expected, that those who attack “activists judges who treat the constitution as a living document that adjusts to the changing times” don’t decry what has happened to the 2nd amendment. 350 years ago things like electricity, trains, cars, planes, indoor toilets, computers, the telegraph, the Pill, etc. had not been invented. Hard to expect the founding fathers to establish clear legal doctrines for things that not only didn’t exist but would have been viewed as magic.

Guns did exist however when the constitution was written. Granted, far fewer people owned guns at the time of the American revolution than they do now. And those who did own guns back then were far more likely to use them to feed their families than present gun owners. The guns that did exist would take a minute or so to reload between shots; not the semi-automatic weapons used today can shoot hundreds of bullets in a minute.

But the founding fathers did not include guns in the original constitution,

The 2nd Amendment was part of the much maligned Bill of Rights that the states required to be added before they agreed to sign on the dotted line. And the states were very clear about what they were doing with the 2nd Amendment. The states gave themselves the right to arm their own militia without the need for the permission of the federal government. And the states only gave themselves the right to arm a militia – citizens were not given the right to raise their own militias. Granted, a few states went further in their own state constitutions with respect to the right to gun ownership – but not in the federal constitution. And much of the initial debate (and drafts) in Congress was over the definition of a militia and including language to protect the right of individuals to refuse to be forced to bear arms in a militia if it violated their religious principles.

In the decades after the 2nd amendment was adopted, the few militias that were created – the public generally being opposed to standing armies – were generally armed with clubs rather than guns.

But lets put aside the discussion of how the radical right and the NRA have been able to overturn three centuries of legal precedence to rewrite the 2nd amendment. The 2nd Amendment may be the most stark example of how our present Supreme Court has rewritten legal history to reflect their political biases but it is not the only one.

Why has Congress, whose members until recently used to compete to see who was the strongest law and order candidate, been willing to allow an epidemic of gun violence to flourish in the country often over the opposition of law enforcement agencies whom they otherwise rush for photo ops with?

The answer is a lack of courage among politicians, for whom winning the next election is invariably more important than what is best for the future of the country. The bottom line is that while many Americans want gun control, it has not been an issue that has risen to a level where they will vote against a politician who fails to take action. And while there may only be 5% of the voters who will vote against a politician solely for supporting gun control, this 5% is concentrated in enough districts – usually rural and conservative – that they are effectively able to control a large enough voting bloc in Congress to block action.

So the public – not politicians – are the only ones that can’t give us gun control. And it will have to be done against a rogue US Supreme Court and a spineless, gridlocked Congress.

I won’t waste time discussing banning semi-automatic assault weapons since it is disgrace that they have been allowed. And the loopholes for gun shows is another disgrace. Sales between individuals, under federal law, do not require a background check. This means that felons can “lie and buy” at gun shows and other places where guns are readily available. More than 40% of gun purchases occur this way.

There are around 300 million guns in the US. About 100 million are handguns. There is a gun in between 40 to 45% of all American households. About 2/3 of the 16,000 killings in the US each year are done by guns. More than 30 Americans are killed every day by guns. Unless laws are change, an estimated 46,000 Americans will be killed by guns during President Obama’s term.

There have been 61 mass murders in the US since 1982. Over a million people have been killed with guns in the US since 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated

Guns legally obtained were used in 49 of them. The firearm homicide rate in the US is 19.5 times higher than in other high income countries (are overall homicide rate is 6.9 times higher).

A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting, a criminal assault or homicide, or an attempted or completed suicide than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense. A 2009 study found that people in possession of a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault. There are five times as many deaths from gun assaults as from knife assaults, where the rates of assault with knives and with guns are similar

In the U.S, children under 15 commit suicide with guns at a rate of eleven times the rate of other countries combined. More Americans were killed with guns in the 18-year period between 1979 and 1997 (651,697), than were killed in battle in all wars since 1775 (650,858). States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths (however, this correlation is not true for mental illness).

Despite all this. according to the Gallup Poll, support for stricter gun control laws has fallen from 78% in 1990 to 44% in 2010.

Sarah Brady started the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence after her husband was shot in the attempt on President Reagan’s life. Here is part of her recent blog:

“Most Americans don’t know how weak our guns laws are. Gun owners aren’t licensed. Guns aren’t registered. Why not? Because the NRA said so. The Brady Law, named for my husband after he was shot in the 1981 attempt to assassinate President Reagan, required background checks for gun purchases from licensed gun dealers. Most private sales, including those at gun shows, don’t require background checks. That’s insanity. The background check system needs to be improved to insure that all prohibited purchasers are, in fact, prohibited from obtaining and possessing firearms. And, yes, we need a real ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and on magazines of more than ten rounds.”

Every few years we have a new gun massacre of unspeakable horror that seems like it will finally break the log jam over gun control. Change however is never easy, especially when so many profit from selling guns. Polls after Newtown showed that support for gun control has increased – but only to 55%. Support for the NRA is at similar levels.

Let’s hope that Vice-President Biden, a long time advocate of gun control, makes the most of this opportunity.

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