By Amy Lund
The 1st of October 2017 was a tragedy. There can be no denying. At least 58 lost their lives and 500 more were injured when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock interrupted a country music festival with a shower of bullets on the Las Vegas strip. Accompanying him in his Madalay Bay hotel room were a stockpile of 42 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The burning question that has been brewing ever since Sandy Hook (a school shooting in Connecticut, 2012): why does this continue to happen? How can an ordinary retiree gain access to 42 firearms and get them in his hotel room with no one batting an eye? How does a former prison guard, who received an ‘administrative termination’ for joking about bringing a gun to school, fatally shoot 49 people inside a Florida nightclub just one year prior? How and why has nothing changed? Many were baffled when President Trump exclaimed, “we’ll talk about that later,”.
So, why not now? Why won’t we talk about guns?
Shortly after 9am on the 13th of March, 1996, the UK nation reeled when a former Scout leader (Thomas Hamilton) shot 15 children aged five to six and their teacher, Gwen Major, at Dunblane Primary School. Demands were made and questions asked. How could a man like Hamilton (A gun-obsessed ‘odd-ball’ formerly questioned on inappropriate behaviour towards young boys) be allowed to own guns? Conservative Prime Minister John Major set up a public inquiry and within a year and a half, a ban had been passed on the private ownership of all handguns in mainland Britain. Being found with an illegal fire arm could even lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Since the ban, the numbers of gun related offences have fallen each year, to a point where the House of Commons Library states that in 2011 the number of offences were 53% below the peak number.
Admittedly however, these gun reforms were not entirely effective. In 2010 Derrick Bird still committed a four-hour Cumbrian shooting spree in which he killed 12 people. Bird had first received a shotgun certificate in 1974, and most recently renewed it in 2005. Despite seeking help for his fragile mental state, Bird still maintained a certificate on the day of the shooting. Stricter gun laws ultimately couldn’t predict what Bird was about to do. Criminologist Peter Squires asserts that “any weapon can be used in a crime… The swamp of gun use has not been fully drained and while tighter gun control removes risk on an incremental basis, significant numbers of weapons remain in Britain.”
Of course, strict gun laws coupled with a crack-down on gang culture have made a huge improvement, and the UK hasn’t been haunted by nearly as many mass shooting as the USA. In fact, according to UNODC, firearms murders are nearly 30 times fewer than in the US per capita.
Despite the faltering success of the UK’s crackdown, one thing cannot be denied. The responses by both countries couldn’t have been more different. Whilst John Major succumbed to public and political pressure almost immediately following Dunblane, Donald Trump has said the issue will be discussed ‘as time goes on’.
In 1994, the USA introduced an assault weapons ban, but it failed to make a significant impact. This can be partially explained by the lack of use of assault weapons: rifles and assault weapons are only used in 3.55% of annual gun murders (according to the FBI). Of course, banning a weapon that is barely used anyway isn’t going to make a drastic difference. Would it have been a success if the government had pushed for more? The truth is, no matter how much the US government pushes, the debate on gun control is at a stalemate. Former president Barack Obama pressed for stricter gun control throughout his presidency, but got nowhere. He even admitted that his failure to pass “common sense gun safety laws” in the US was the greatest frustration of his presidency. The pressure to let citizens ‘have the right to bear arms,’ is so great that, even when the government does impose restrictions they do not make any significant change.
The National Rifle Association of America is an American non-profit organisation which advocates for gun rights. A 1999 Fortune magazine survey said that lawmakers and their staffers considered the NRA the most powerful lobbying organisation three years in a row. Their political action committee (PAC) is ranked as ‘one of the biggest spenders in congressional elections,’. The survey also included that in 2012, 88% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats in Congress had received an NRA PAC contribution at some point in their career, that’s 51% of the 2013 Congress. With the NRA opposing most new gun-control legislation, it comes as no surprise that the US Congress is so reluctant to allow for a tightening of gun control.
Alongside pressure from the NRA, the government also faces huge public pressure. Whilst a vast majority of the UK public viewed Dunblane as the final straw when it came to gun control, the gun culture in America means such a reaction just isn’t likely to happen. Admittedly, not all Americans believe entirely in an unregulated right to bear arms. The ‘Pew Research Center’ found that 77% of Americans believe the gun show loop-hole, which means purchasers can buy guns avoiding a background check at private shows, should be removed. Business Insider also examined that 83% believe Americans on the FBI’s no-fly list should be blocked from buying guns. However, whilst a significant number of Americans do favour tighter gun control, a significant number do not. For example, a poll conducted by CNN has found that the majority of Americans (52%) oppose stricter gun regulations. This leads to more public pressure on the government to protect the second Amendment of the United States constitution; “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
There are also some practical restrictions as to why America seems to be taking a different route to the UK, namely that there are just too many guns. The last gun count measured 265 million (Harvard/Northeastern survey), that’s enough to arm every adult American. Gun control laws can only go so far in reducing the purchase of new guns; these rules do not impact current gun owners. A common argument amongst gun owners goes even further than the practical restrictions of implementing gun control, stating this would only push the remaining guns into the black market, hence putting the country at even more risk with less regulations and restrictions. However, gun control would ultimately make it much harder for the common man to access firearms and perhaps, an event like Las Vegas, where a retiree with no criminal background possessed so many weapons, wouldn’t happen.
Finally, we have the phenomenon coined ‘The Trump Slump,’. This is the idea that when you start talking about gun control, it literally backfires. By calling himself the ‘true friend’ of gun rights activists, many gun owners have started to relax, where the panic purchasing of guns that occurred during Obama’s presidency has begun to reduce. For instance, The Guardian has claimed that Mid America Armament’s sales were down 25% compared with last year and gun show sales have dropped by 50%. Firearm manufacturer Jermiah Blasi has explained that “nobody’s concerned that we’re going to lose gun rights in the immediate future”. Barack Obama was even called “the best gun salesman on the planet,”. This puts the anti-gun activists in a difficult position: talk about getting rid of guns, and we get more guns.
Ultimately, it seems that the talks on gun control need to happen. Yes, tighter restrictions on the ownership and sale of guns would not eliminate fire arm related crimes, we have seen this in the UK. However, it would certainly reduce it. With events like those in Las Vegas occurring year upon year, there is certainly an issue within the US gun culture. Indeed, making gun control a focal point of Obama’s presidency did little to directly tackle the issue, even inadvertently upping gun sales. However, he certainly succeeded in bringing the issue to light and forcing the debate into the population. Whilst these talks do need to happen, right now may not be the right time. The tragedy of Las Vegas is still fresh and the victims, country and world still need to mourn. The motive of the shooter is still unknown, alongside how he came to acquire his weapons. Politicizing the events of Las Vegas risks disrespecting the victims and sparking a debate based on pure anger and little fact. Perhaps we should wait until ‘later’ to talk about guns, but does Trump’s later mean later, or does it mean never?
Photo credit.. https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/