The debate over the unimaginable carnage due to gun violence and privation of stricter gun control laws in the United States has grown and faded over the years and gets stirred frequently by incidents of gun violence. Last month the mass shootings at the Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, again reignited the fierce debate over gun control legislation in the country. Amidst the political divisions over how to address gun violence, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to strike down a New York Law limiting gun-carrying rights of American citizens has expanded the existing gun rights in the United States. President Joe Biden was extremely disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, as it “contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should trouble us all”.
Guns have been woven into the fabric of American culture and politics since the Second Amendment (1791) to the U.S. Constitution affirmed that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. Gun legislations in the United States are built on the judicial interpretations of the Constitution and it was on the grounds of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments (1868) that in the case of District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court, in its landmark decision, declared the ban on handguns as unconstitutional, therefore, reaffirming the individual right to possess firearms and use them for self-defence.
According to the National Firearms Survey of 2021, more than 81.4 million Americans above the age of 18 years own firearms, which makes up for almost 32 per cent of the adult American population. But the actual numbers are believed to be much higher as the prerequisite for a permit or registration to purchase guns is not a necessary requirement in all American states. America’s problem with gun violence is not limited to mass shootings, although the use of firearms is disproportionately higher in incidents of mass shootings compared to other forms of shootings, they are still relatively rare. In 2021, mass shootings accounted for less than 2 per cent of the nearly 40,000 fatalities resulting from gun violence in cases of homicides, police shooting, domestic violence, accidents and suicides which make up the highest number of gun-related deaths in the country.
Over the years, the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), the US gun rights advocacy group has played a big role in pushing forward the idea that guns are necessary for self-defence. They believe that owning a gun is a basic right similar to their right to free speech, and gun control legislation is an effort to deprive law-abiding American citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves. The NRA continues to oppose any effort to implement gun control policies and initiatives that override constitutional due process protections. It has shifted the narrative of gun politics where gun ownership is paralleled to patriotism and has become a political identity. Gun violence has taken more lives than any other public crisis in the US. Compared to other western countries, the US does not have an overall crime problem, but it certainly does have more lethal violence attributable to the prevalence of guns.
Over the years, the subject of gun rights has become an intensely partisan issue, with the Republicans voting in favor of protecting the gun rights and the Democrats voting against them and placing more importance on gun regulations. There are federal gun laws that apply uniformly across the whole United States, which ban convicted felons, people with mental illness and kids under the age of 18 years from buying guns. But the gun laws are not uniform across all states as there are state laws, and each state law has its own leeway to enforce their own regulations that are wildly at variance with one another. For instance, in Massachusetts which is a strong Democratic state, police permit and a background check to buy a gun is a legal requirement, whereas in Texas with a strong Republican state, there are laws that permit citizens to carry concealed hand guns without any permit. There are more than 20 states that do not require any permit for purchasing firearms. These differences reflect the underlying partisan divide which has grown wider in the last three decades and is the greatest political and ideological split between the Republicans and the Democrats compared to any other issue in the American political life.
The US Congress has repeatedly failed to pass tougher gun laws and legislative reforms even as public opinion strongly pushes for it, but the issue of gun control is a political battle than it is a public opinion battle. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2021, only 52 per cent of the Americans believed in making stricter gun laws, a drop from 67 per cent in 2018. The United States is vastly divided on political partisan lines and gun ownership and these two divisions have created barriers making it difficult to move forward and overcome policy change at a national level.
President Biden considers gun violence as a public health epidemic and his plans to tackle gun control include investing in evidence-based community violence interventions to address the root causes of gun violence. After the mass shootings in Uvalde, the Biden Administration wants to toughen guns laws and make sure the ones that already exist are actually applied including zero tolerance policy for gun dealers who flout the rules. He also called for stricter laws to be imposed on ghost guns as these weapons are sold in parts and without a serial number so they cannot be traced. These are easily available kits which can be purchased online without a background check and can be turned into a fully functional firearm. Biden also wants to bring back the ban on assault weapons, mostly used in mass shootings. He himself authored the assault-weapons ban, which was in place for a decade until 2004.
Given the political climate and a divided Senate, President Biden has few realistic avenues to pursue gun control legislation without congressional action. The Democratic push for more gun control and regulation is often met with voters and politicians in Congress who believe that guns are not the problem and perceive it as an attack on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. There is always a promising consensus on potential legislation, but usually the prospects of a bipartisan action on gun control fades within weeks of mass shootings. The Senate on Thursday (23 June) passed a Bipartisan Gun Control Bill in a 65–33 vote, which will next have to clear through the House of Representatives before going to President Biden’s for his signature. The bill is considered to be an important legislation as it revises the measures such as expanding background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21 years and offering funding to states that have emergency programmes in place to seize guns from people deemed dangerous by a judge. But as the Senate worked towards this gun safety legislation, the Supreme Court overturned a handgun restriction.
Through the influences of culture and politics, the United States has a very powerful gun-centric movement where both gun rights and gun regulations have been respected, but at the moment gun violence is a public health issue. Gun homicides are number one cause of deaths for all youth in America, the No. 1 cause of deaths for Black men and the highest rate of firearms deaths among the world’s wealthy nations. Mass shootings in other western countries like New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada and UK have prompted these nations to enact gun reforms by imposing measures such as bans on semiautomatic firearms, stricter background checks and national registry requirement. To tackle the tragedy of America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence there is need to address the divide on gun control regulation and find a common ground between Democrats and Republicans for a bipartisan outcome, which respects the Second Amendment, makes a significant headway into preventing gun crimes, ensures public safety and earns a wide support in the Senate.
The author is a doctoral candidate at the centre of Canadian, US and Latin American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.