Analysis: America’s Tragic Tryst With Gun Control Laws

Analysis: America’s Tragic Tryst With Gun Control Laws

Like a farce being tragically enacted in front of families that have lost their loved ones, the gun control debate will carry on for a few more generations, while thousands more continue to die, year after year

Sachin KalbagUpdated: Wednesday, April 10, 2024, 10:32 PM IST
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Representative Image | Steve Buissinne/Pixabay

On November 30, 2021, a 15-year-old boy in the otherwise quiet township of Oxford in Michigan, in the upper midwestern region of the United States, entered his high school premises with a semiautomatic handgun he had picked up from home and began shooting indiscriminately at his teachers and fellow students. Ethan Crumbley continued firing for four minutes until he was captured, but those 240 seconds were enough to kill four teenagers and injure seven others.

The assailant, the police later revealed, still had seven rounds of ammunition loaded into his gun and two 15-round magazines when he was held by a law enforcement officer.

Mass shootings are so common in the US that, many of them no longer have shock value. The Ethan Crumbley case is different, though.

Apart from the case against him, the state charged his parents — Jennifer and James — with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for their failure to secure the gun their son used in the shooting. They were the first parents in the US to be charged with having responsibility for a mass school shooting by a child, and, on Tuesday night (India time), both were convicted and sentenced to prison for 15 years. Ethan was already sentenced to life imprisonment (without parole) in December 2023.

The Jennifer and James Crumbley case will go down in American history as a major legal precedent, and it brings back to the political arena a contentious issue that has plagued the nation for decades — the Second Amendment in the US constitution which gives the right to bear arms.

This is at the centre of the debate over mass shootings (at least four deaths) in the US, which accounted for one-third of such incidents from around the world between 1962 and 2016. According to the Gun Violence Archive, between 2020 and 2023, America saw at least 600 incidents of mass shooting each year (610, 690, 647 and 656 respectively). The country records an average of 118 deaths per day (yes, per day) due to gun violence. In 2023 alone, the US saw 42,987 gun-violence deaths.

What is even more disturbing is that some of America’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the last decade and a half. In October 2017, a gunman killed 60 and injured at least 850 people during a music festival in Las Vegas. In 2016, another gunman killed 49 outside a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

The most noted of such shootings happened in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado where two high school students murdered 12 students and a teacher using four guns and 99 explosives. This incident prompted filmmaker Michael Moore to produce a hardhitting documentary titled Bowling for Columbine that went on to win an Oscar and is regarded as one of the greatest documentaries of all time.

At the centre of Moore’s documentary, and the contemporary political debate in the US that is likely to once again heat up in the run-up to the presidential elections this year, are American gun laws. The Second Amendment — ratified in 1791 — guarantees American citizens the right to own guns and form militia to protect themselves and their property. The National Rifle Association, a hugely influential lobby group, has so far successfully blocked any attempt by US lawmakers to ban assault weapons at the federal level (even though 10 states have banned assault weapons).

The organisation’s influence is so widespread that even the staunchest of gun critics in the US Congress are unable to move much beyond offering words of condolence.

President Barack Obama, an otherwise calm head of state, cried twice on national television while making speeches about gun laws. In an interview to the BBC after he ended his two-term presidency in 2017, he said his failure to pass commonsense gun laws was the “greatest frustration” of his tenure. In fact, in nationwide survey conducted in 2021, 84% of Americans support stricter gun control laws.

The question then is: why, despite all the thousands that get killed each year, does America not have gun laws? There are a few reasons for this.

One, the outrage against guns usually peaks after a mass shooting, but dies down later. You can blame it on recency bias, but Americans seem to be ambivalent about introducing laws that restrict their constitution-guaranteed freedoms even at the cost of thousands of lives each year.

Two, conservative politics. The Republican Party has consistently opposed gun control laws, and when it comes to voting, even Democrats — especially those that represent rural constituencies — oppose them. In one such famous case, the US Congress (its parliament) in 2013 tried to pass an already watered down bill to expand background checks on gun purchase, following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. Most Republicans and even some Democrats opposed the bill, and filibustered it into defeat. This prompted President Obama to publicly blame the NRA, which remains one of the top donors to the Republican Party.

It is quite likely that this year’s presidential elections will feature gun control laws, but I am not betting much on it. President Joe Biden knows that it is a slippery slope, and like Gaza, it is will result in a blowback. His approach will be, like it has been for previous residents of the White House, to offer condolences, make a few cliché-ridden speeches and move on.

His opponent, Republican Donald Trump is more right-wing than most Republicans, and he is opposed to any gun control laws.

The third and most important reason for the non-passage of any gun laws is the composition of the US Senate, the upper house of Congress. Unless progressives make up for two-thirds of the 100 Senators (an extremely unlikely scenario), passing any gun control law is impossible. Republicans will definitely oppose it, and, as it happened after Sandy Hook, even Democrats are not guaranteed to vote for it.

This brings the debate back to square one. Like a farce being tragically enacted in front of families that have lost their loved ones, the gun control debate will carry on for a few more generations, while thousands more continue to die, year after year.

Sachin Kalbag, Senior Fellow at The Takshashila Institution, is a former Washington Correspondent and editor of Indian newspapers. Email: sachin@takshashila.org.in. Twitter: @SachinKalbag

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