Aug 14th 2019

What’s Behind America’s Mass Shootings?

 

WASHINGTON, DC – After every mass shooting in the United States, Americans and others around the world are confronted with the question of what lies behind this distinctly American horror. Though total gun deaths in the US have actually declined over time, mass shootings (those with at least four victims) have become deadlier and more frequent. Some have had an especially strong emotional impact on the country.

The back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on the first weekend of August are widely being viewed as the straw that will break the back of the US gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has long stood in the way of congressional passage of gun-control measures. Yet we have heard similar predictions before. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on December 14, 2012, when a 20-year-old man gunned down 20 first-graders and six adults, then-President Barack Obama, wiping tears from his eyes, vowed to take action.

On the face of it, adopting meaningful gun-control legislation after such a horrendous tragedy should not have been a problem. Polls showed that 92% of the public supported closing loopholes in the requirement for background checks – which at present don’t include examinations of individuals purchasing firearms at gun shows, privately from another individual, or online – and that 62% supported a ban on high-capacity magazines. It was hard to ignore the emotional appeal of the shattered parents who’d come to Washington to plead their case. Yet, even in the wake of Sandy Hook, the US Senate voted down two measures to tighten gun-control laws. 

To understand why, it’s important to keep in mind that the politics of gun control emanate from the same counter-majoritarian principle that gave Americans the Electoral College. In the Senate, far less populous western, midwestern, and southern states – home to hunters and conservative-leaning John Wayne wannabes – have the same representation as far larger states like New York and California. So, even when most Americans favor stronger gun-control laws, that majority position isn’t necessarily reflected in the makeup of the Senate.

At the same time, gun-control opponents have benefited enormously from a seemingly nonsensical interpretation of the Second Amendment. Adopted in 1791, the Second Amendment states that, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Books have been written about the amendment’s true meaning, but to gun-rights advocates, neither the plain text nor the historical context of the amendment matters. By ignoring the governing clause – “a well regulated Militia, being necessary” (an awkward comma, to be sure) – they assert an individual “right to keep and bear arms” as if it had been handed down from Mount Sinai.

In reality, the Second Amendment is a product of its time, reflecting the former colonies’ perceived need to protect themselves from a standing government army. Moreover, the weapons of the time were simple objects compared to the deadly semiautomatics and magazines that the NRA tries to convince “sportsmen” they must have, and for which there is no appropriate civilian purpose. (Needless to say, gun manufacturers have contributed millions of dollars to the NRA.)

Arguments over the meaning of the Second Amendment remained at an impasse for over two centuries. Then came the Supreme Court’s landmark 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which invalidated the District of Columbia’s ban on privately owned handguns in the nation’s capital. With the Court having become even more conservative since then, new gun-control laws that come before it may well suffer a similar fate, especially if President Donald Trump wins re-election.

The last major gun-control legislation enacted in the US was the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included a ban on assault weapons. As a compromise, that provision came with a number of loopholes, as well as a “sunset” clause requiring that it be explicitly renewed after ten years. In the event, the ban was allowed to lapse in 2004, during George W. Bush’s presidency.

The prevailing evidence shows that mass-shooting deaths fell during the years when the assault-weapons ban was in place, and then rose after it lapsed. If a tightened new ban were enacted, along with a reduction in the legal magazine capacity to ten (from as much as 100 now), that would be a sign that Trump and Congress are serious about curbing mass slaughters. But there is little likelihood of it happening.

Still, in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Trump has begun to strike a somewhat different tone on the issue, indicating that he would support “very meaningful background checks.” But Trump talked the same way after a gunman murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. He soon backed off under pressure from the NRA (which, it is worth remembering, was implicated in Russia’s efforts to help Trump in the 2016 election).

Following the latest two massacres, Trump also called for a “red-flag” law, which would allow courts temporarily to confiscate firearms from individuals deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, following notification by a family member or law-enforcement official. Such laws are already on the books in more than a dozen states, but many conservatives oppose them on the grounds that they deny due process. Nonetheless, some prominent Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, feel they have to do something about the mass shootings, and are now championing red-flag legislation.

Of course, neither background checks nor a red-flag law would have prevented the slaughter at Sandy Hook (the guns, after all, belonged to the shooter’s mother, whom he killed first). But such measures would allow Trump and his fellow Republicans to claim that they have “done something” about the problem. Hence, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who chronically obstructs anything supported by the Democrats, but wants the Senate to remain in Republican hands – has said that he might consider legislation on background checks and red-flag laws.

Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)

Whatever happens in the next few months, the fact that there are more privately owned guns than people in the US means that any new gun-control law would have only a marginal effect, at best. Despite the American public’s urgent and desperate demand that lawmakers “do something,” Trump is currently on a ten-day golfing vacation, and Congress is on its annual August recess. A lot, including a change in the national mood, could happen before it reconvenes.


Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.