A mass shooting at a state-run facility for individuals with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino, California has left 14 people dead and 21 injured.
This week, US President Barack Obama addressed the American people for the 15th time following a mass shooting.
He referred to the pattern of mass shootings that has no parallel anywhere else in the world. The President in early October characterised the response and reporting as “routine”. This is the 354th mass shooting in the United States in 2015. That averages to one a day.
Obama has referenced Australia’s Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 where gunman, Martin Bryant, opened fire and killed 35 people in Tasmania. The Howard government swiftly responded by passing new laws prohibiting all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and implemented strict licensing rules, which involved background checks and waiting periods as well as a buy-back scheme.
America’s unwavering love of guns perplexes Australians. We contrast the situation in the US with how we reformed our gun laws in response to one unhinged individual’s shooting spree, and how this reduced the incidences of mass shootings from 13 between 1979-1996, to zero in the following 19 years. In doing so, we simultaneously attempt to shame the United States into reforming its gun laws by highlighting deficiencies in their response, and try to inspire change by providing an example of a conservative national government successfully implementing tough, new gun control laws.
Neither is likely to be an effective strategy in shifting US thinking on gun laws.
Understanding America’s unrequited romance with guns begins with recognising that in 1996, we did not need to grapple with an institutionalised gun culture. And we did not have a political landscape characterised by unworkable polarisation. So what exactly interferes with America following Australia’s lead on gun reform?
1. Both Republicans and Democrats Love Guns
Americans love guns. It is a love that transcends party lines. The Democratic Party Platform acknowledges the right to bear arms as an important part of the American tradition. Steven Hill and Robert Richie in The Atlantic go so far as to explain how Democrats now pander to the issue and remind their readers how in 2004, Presidential hopeful, John Kerry trumpeted his own prowess as a gun owner. Now as Secretary of State, Kerry’s attempt at swaying gun owners has been unsuccessful. Despite his hunting photos and camouflage, he lost gun owners nationally by 28 votes.
It also remains unclear what catalyst is needed in the United States for a change in gun culture. In 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford attended an event with her constituents in Tucson. She was shot in the head at point blank range. Following her courageous recovery, she and her husband started “Americans for Responsible Gun Solutions”. Her profile describes her long-time gun ownership and belief in the constitutional right of all Americans to safe and responsible gun ownership.
Gifford’s experience best illustrates that the point of tension between the two parties is what, if any, constitutes reasonable regulations around this right – not the more basic question of whether guns have a legitimate place in a democratic society. Couching the gun debate in terms of reasonable regulation, however, overlooks that the type of gun safety in countries that has had dramatic results involves no guns. And not even liberal Democrats would support this position.
2. The Lobbying Power of the National Rifle Association
In 1996, Australia did not need to grapple with the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA contributed $810,462 to candidates in the 2014 election cycle and has raised $165,200 so far for the 2016 campaign. The top recipients in 2014 were the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Of the 46 candidates who voted against expanding background checks in 2013, 43 received political contributions from pro-gun interests.
Their pervasive influence through campaign contributions is now a permanent fixture on America’s democratic landscape.
Critically, the NRA mobilises voters in a handful of swing districts that can determine which party controls the House of Representatives. Hill and Richie go on to explain that who controls the House comes down to 35 districts, or eight per cent. Generally, these swing states are rural and conservative leaning. With the majority of NRA members living in swing districts, this set up gives enormous power to the NRA. It can target its resources to these areas, which are key voting battlegrounds for the President and for Congressional members.
Australia’s gun lobby simply did not exercise the same levels of power, nor political astuteness.
3. Blurred Lines: Partisan Gerrymandering
The majority of individual Americans support common sense gun reform. However, America’s geography has a Republican Bias. Every state elects a certain number of people to the House Representatives. This number is based on a state’s population count, and the state is then divided into congressional districts with roughly equal populations.
Partisan gerrymandering occurs when political parties opportunistically use this map drawing process of geographically dividing boundaries to advance their interests. You pack an opponent’s supporters together in a few districts, and make the others relatively more balanced. The result? You lose a few districts big, and win the majority of districts comfortably.
America’s “winner takes all” elections allow gun safety opponents to form a powerful, single-issue voting bloc that secures large numbers of seats in elections. Australia’s political system, by contrast, tends to push parties toward the centre political ground as they fight to win swing seats where voters can be convinced to shift support from one party to another.
4. The Second Amendment is a Constitutional Right
The United States Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the Constitution confers on an individual the right to possess a firearm for a traditionally lawful purpose (i.e. self-defence). In doing so, they overturned two Washington D.C. provisions: one that banned handguns, and another that required lawful firearms in the home to be disassembled, or trigger-locked.
Justice Elena Kegan explained in 2013 that the NRA had become “quite a presence” in judicial confirmations. She went on to describe how she would go to the office, meet with 80 senators, and answer questions about her views on the Second Amendment. Congressman Patrick Lehay asked Kegan during her Senate Confirmation hearing if there was any doubt that the Second Amendment secures a fundamental right for an individual to own a firearm.
The United States is one of two other countries (along with Mexico and Guatemala) that constitutionally protect the right to bear arms. The Constitution is notoriously and deliberately difficult to amend. And this will be even more so when looking at the Court’s current 5-4 conservative leaning. In the foreseeable future, with life-appointments for Supreme Court justices, we are unlikely to see a reading down of the “right to bear arms”.
Previously thought safe spaces are no longer safe including primary schools, community college, churches, health clinics and cinemas. Americans talk about mass shootings in the same way we talk about natural disasters – inevitable. But they are not.
There is a gun for every man, woman and child in America. And they are easy to obtain. Australia is not a comparable case study for the United States. We cannot pretend we faced the same entrenched institutional obstacles, and a fear-driven political climate. How do you implement a buy-back scheme for 300 million guns, and aggressive, unwilling gun-owners?
America faces self-created barriers to effective gun safety reform. Australia’s success in this area does not mean it automatically presents a model for a developed, democratic nation changing its laws. It didn’t work when it was tried on us. Change needs to come from within.
Claudette Yazbek is an avid consumer of international and domestic politics, a coffee aficionado and a freelance journalist. Claudette is a graduate-at-law and the Content Manager for legal tech startup based in Sydney. She has worked in Adelaide, Washington D.C. and Kuala Lumpur.
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