Why America’s gun laws don’t change after deadly mass shootings
For the second time in under 18 months, the United States has recorded the deadliest mass shooting in its modern history.
Fifty-eight people are dead and just under 500 injured. Four Canadians were among those murdered when Nevada native Stephen Paddock opened fire using what police believe were modified semiautomatic weapons that he could have purchased legally. (Editor’s note: Police updated the number of dead to 58, down from 59 on Wednesday night.)
But experts say that it’s unlikely the carnage in Las Vegas on Sunday night — or any subsequent mass shooting — will be enough to radically alter America’s permissive gun laws.
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“We saw in 2012 with the Sandy Hook massacre, where 20 white children and six teachers were gunned down in broad daylight in an idyllic neighbourhood in Connecticut, that even that event wasn’t able to move the needle,” said Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto who has studied gun culture in the U.S.
“People sort of see that as a watershed moment.”
But Lee said it’s also important to remember that midterm elections are coming next year in the United States.
“Gun control seems to be on people’s minds,” he said. “I guess the real challenge is going to be how to mobilize people to go to the polls and vote based on this issue.”
The absence of a large cohort of Americans who want stricter gun control laws and are passionate enough to show up in great numbers to support candidates who feel the same is one big reason why the laws don’t change, Lee explained.
Overall, fewer than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2014 midterms, and only 61 per cent showed up for the U.S. election last November.
One thing that can be reliably counted on throughout American election cycles, however, is the outsized influence of the country’s powerful gun lobby.
The push for any new gun control measures — even ones restricting access to firearms for known terror suspects, domestic abusers and the mentally ill — has repeatedly been stymied by a Republican-controlled Congress and the handful of independents and Democrats who are against any changes to the status quo.
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Many members of that Congress have, in turn, benefited from the support of organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its politically active membership.
“Their lobbying efforts are tremendous,” Lee said of the NRA.
“(The members of Congress) then go out and support bills like the one that was in the House this week, which was to make silencers easier to buy. If the shooter in Las Vegas had a silencer, we would have seen an even greater number of casualties.”
There is some indication that U.S. lawmakers are backing away from that proposal in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, Lee added.
The NRA can donate a finite amount to individual candidates, but it can also contribute to party committees, the national party, state and local parties.
The non-profit organization has its own super PAC political action committee that helps bolster the candidates that it endorses (95 per cent of whom won their races in 2014), and its five-million members wield enormous influence through individual donations, letter-writing campaigns, and a highly organized online community.
Still, it’s only a minority of Americans who feel that any change to gun laws is unacceptable. Though it may seem strange from an outside perspective, Lee noted, overall public opinion and political action do not line up in the United States when it comes to gun control.
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A recent poll conducted by the New York Times, for instance, revealed that a significant majority of Americans (75 per cent or more) supported various measures like banning sales to people on terror watchlists, reporting all gun sales to the federal government, universal background checks, mandatory licensing and mandatory waiting periods.
“While maybe a majority of Americans are in favour of very sensible gun controls, a lot of those people are not zealots about their cause,” said Lee. “They’re not the same kinds of people who will go out and lobby and vote.”
Lee, an American citizen himself, said there also still remains a strong attachment to the right to bear arms in the U.S. as outlined in the Second Amendment.
“I think Americans, in general, have a higher level of distrust of big government than do Canadians,” he said.
“There’s this romantic kind of image that the right to bear arms is an American citizen’s last line of defence against a tyrannical government.”
In the centuries since the Second Amendment was written, however, most Americans seemingly recognize that weapons have evolved and become far more deadly.
“We have guns and ammunition and all sorts of attachments to firearms that the founding fathers never could have imagined.”
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