America's gun fetish could actually end up weakening constitutional orderby Sam Tanenhaus / January 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
President Barack Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden about measures to reduce gun violence with family members of victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. Photo taken in April, 2013. ©Carolyn Kaster/AP/Press Association Images Read more: The right to bear arms is anti-democraticOf the many ideological standoffs in the Barack Obama years, the battle over gun ownership may well expose the sharpest divisions in the American public—and within the recesses of the national psyche. “My biggest frustration,” Obama has said, “is the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage.” That was in June 2014—a year before a white supremacist massacred black worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina; 18 months before the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, California. The new year began with another bleak episode, this one resembling a low-budget Hollywood Western: armed “militiamen” seized control of a federal building at a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. While authorities sifted through the dismal options—take on the outlaws and risk bloodshed? Do nothing and encourage anarchy?—Obama promised to enact mild gun-control restrictions via “executive actions.” This averted a showdown with Congress that he would almost certainly lose, repeating the failure in 2013, when the outcry after a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, led to the drafting of a gun-control bill that seemed sure to pass the Senate but was instead defeated. “A 2009 report estimated that Americans own 310m guns in total–the first time the number of firearms surpassed the country’s total population.” Meanwhile, gun sales are brisk. A Congressional Research Service report estimated that Americans owned a total of 310m guns in 2009, “the first time that the number of firearms in circulation surpassed the total population of the United States,” according to the Washington Post. The Post now puts the number of guns at 357m. Most of the weapons belong to one large segment of the population, white and rural, which also happens to be the Republican base, shrinking in numbers but increasing its stockpiles. This fetish for weapons, and fear of even minimal regulation, mystifies much of the world and confounds many Americans, too. As many as 80 per cent of the National Rifle Association (NRA) support gun-control measures, including the background checks Obama has been calling for, which would keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Yet the NRA resists every new law. Why? Because its constituency isn’t really the 4.5m members, the wholesome, outdoorsy “mums and dads and sons and daughters” it claims to have. It is instead the hidden players in the gun debate—Springfield Armory Inc, Beretta USA Corporation, Sturm Rugar & Co, Smith & Wesson, and other manufacturers which since 2005 have poured as much as $52m into the NRA and bought more than $20m of its advertising and marketing. The money has been well spent. NRA lobbyists are geniuses at changing the subject—from public safety to Constitutional freedom. They’ve done this by reinterpreting the 2nd Amendment, which states “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.” For most of American history this was read as a protection of the rights of the separate states to muster militias for the common defence in the event of invasion, a useful provision given the Founders reluctance to form a federal standing army. The counter-argument, that “the people” meant ordinary citizens, was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime,” Warren Burger, the conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice appointed by Richard Nixon, declared in 1990. Thus, the Republican Nixon wanted to make handguns illegal, and his fellow California Republican, Ronald Reagan, who was shot by a would-be assassin—the bullet missed his heart by an inch—supported background checks as well as limits on automatic weapons. But gun advocates stayed on the case, and gradually brought other conservatives with them. The climactic moment came in 2008 when the Supreme Court, under the George W Bush appointee John Roberts, ruled that the amendment actually does apply to citizens. Even so, it did not confer the “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” In other words, the feds can regulate guns just as they do so much else, from cars and drugs to aerosol emissions and baby toys. “Today, under Texas law, students are permitted to take weapons into classrooms–just as they can in seven other states” But since then, Republicans have been enlarging the reach of gun owners. On 1st January an “Open Carry bill” came into effect in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott, who signed the law, celebrated with a display of target practice at a shooting range outside Austin, the state capital. Austin is also the site of the University of Texas’s main campus—and the scene, in August 1966, of what is often called the first modern sniper mass murder, when the ex-Marine Charles Whitman climbed up a 300-foot clock tower and fired at the plaza below. Whitman’s massacre took the lives of 16 people. Today, under a second new Texas law, students are permitted to take concealed weapons into classrooms and dormitories, just as they can in seven other states. The irony is that the fetish for gun-ownership may indeed weaken Constitutional order as an exasperated Obama, in the last year of a presidency in which gun massacres have become a common occurrence, resorts to executive fiat—taking the law in his own hands, just like the heroes of the Wild West.