U.S.A. Gun Politics

Posted July 23rd, 2012 at 7:27 pm (UTC+0)

A customer checks out a .50 caliber rifle at a gun store in Fort Worth, Texas shortly after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. This gun store and many others had record sales at the time amid fears Mr. Obama would restrict gun ownership. Photo: AP

The Rise of the Gun Lobby

We’ve seen this movie before, and I’m not talking about the latest Batman flic, “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Mass shootings like the one in Colorado last week have become all too commonplace in American culture.  Sadly, the reaction to these national tragedies has also become predictable.  Once the initial shock and horror begin to fade, earnest discussions begin about whether we’ve been lax on gun control in this country or how to keep mass killing weapons and ammo out of the hands of unstable nut jobs.

James Holmes, 24, appeared in court July 23, on charges of killing 12 and wounding 58 others in a Colorado theater showing the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Photo: AP

All of that is getting pumped up again in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, but a lot of political experts are predicting that when the debate turns to gun control, little will happen.  In the last 20 years, there seems to have been a sea-change when it comes to the public’s appetite for more gun laws, thanks in large part to a politically astute and emboldened gun lobby, led of course by the National Rifle Association.


What the Constitution Says

Before we delve into all of that it might be worth it to consider some of the history of the gun control debate in the United States.  In order to do that you have to begin with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:  “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.”  Gun enthusiasts always cite this passage as a kind of constitutional consecration of their God-given right to own guns.  Gun control proponents always focused on the first part of the amendment, the part that talks about a “well-regulated Militia” to argue that the right was not an individual right, but one reserved for organized militias.  The Supreme Court had the last word on this in 2008 when a majority of the high court found that the Second Amendment does in fact refer to the rights of an individual to possess firearms without infringement by the government.

Moving into the 20th century, Congress did crack down on machine guns and other favored weapons of organized crime in the 1930’s, the so-called gangster era of U.S. history.

The gun debate took on new life in the 1960’s following the assassinations of three beloved political leaders in the United States — President John F. Kennedy in 1963, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, followed two months later by the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a Democratic Party contender for president.  Congress eventually tightened some restrictions on gun ownership and sales of guns by mail, but advocates of banning handguns were never able to marshal enough support in Congress to institute a nationwide ban.


1990’s Mark a Political Shift

Then President Bill Clinton made an effort to control assault weapons sales in 1994, but the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress fought back. Photo: AP

The balance of power in the gun control debate really began to shift in the 1990’s during the administration of President Bill Clinton.  In 1994 President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law, a major victory for gun control advocates, especially Democrats representing urban areas around the country.  But in a matter of weeks Democrats faced a major rebuke from voters in the 1994 midterm elections, losing control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.  Democrats from conservative states and rural districts with strong support for gun rights were especially vulnerable and President Clinton eventually acknowledged that the gun lobby, led by the N.R.A., had a lot to do with the Republican gains.

Gun control advocates did score major victory with passage of the Brady Bill in 1990 that imposed a five-day waiting period and background check for those purchasing a handgun.  The law went into effect in 1998.

In the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore narrowly lost the White House to Republican George W. Bush.  One of the keys to the Bush victory was his ability to build up huge margins of support among blue collar white voters, especially in rural districts in the South, Midwest and Mountain West.  Like so many other polarizing issues including abortion, gay marriage and the power of the central government, the divide between urban and rural voters has always been sharply visible in the gun control debate.

President Barack Obama has seemed reluctant to engage on the gun issue, even after last year’s mass shooting in Arizona that wounded Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  In the wake of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy last week, White House officials have said little about any renewed effort to shore up gun control measures.

Late last year the Gallup Polling organization reported that public support for a variety of gun control measures was at an all-time low.  Public opinion polls over the past 50 years have also shown a long trend away from gun control measures to affirming the right of Americans to own firearms.

Surveys from the early 1960’s showed that about 60 percent of people asked wanted to ban handguns.  In one poll from last year, only 26 percent wanted to do that.  A Pew Research survey from earlier this year found that 49 percent believe it is most important to protect gun rights, while 45 percent would prefer to focus on controlling gun ownership.

The National Rifle Association knows how to mobilize its supporters. These buttons and bumper stickers were passed out to potential Republican Party voters in the state of Iowa last winter. Photo: Reuters

The N.R.A. has been skillful in mobilizing its membership to work for those who support gun rights and against those who favor gun control.  As a result, many Democrats, especially those in competitive states or who represent rural areas, have decided not to press gun control issues and to avoid a hot button issue that could get them defeated.

The N.R.A.’s cohesive supporters and their ability to rally grass roots gun groups around the country to affect elections can be an intimidating factor for politicians who might consider supporting even mild gun control measures.   Even the National Democratic Party has looked away at times, believing it’s more important to keep seats in the House and Senate rather than risk a fight over gun control measures that would energize gun enthusiasts.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, impresses politicians more than the ability of voting groups to organize themselves into a potent political force that will turn out at the ballot box.  And over the last 20 years it is hard to find groups more determined to protect their interests than gun rights supporters and the national groups that back them and flex their power in Washington, especially the N.R.A.

7 responses to “U.S.A. Gun Politics”

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  2. james says:

    Has the District of Columbia gone back to the Jim Crow and post civil war time of making sure is 67.10% minority population cannot get firearms. Even though this was addressed by the United State Congress and President Grant’s passage of civil Right law and the Civil Right act of 1871, to insure the newly freed black their civil rights. In this time there was much debate on the 2nd amendment, and how it would apply to the newly freed slaves. This was in part due to Black’s being routinely disarmed by southern states after the civil war, even though it was seen as an infringement of their civil and constitutional rights. If one would look at the congressional records on the debate of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 one would find a direct discussion in the United States House of Representative and the United State Senate on the rights of blacks to keep and bear arms. This discussion was how we can insure they have and keep their 2nd amendment rights. In the end it was best put by Representative Nye, “[any] citizen of the United State has equal rights to protection and to keep and bear arms for self-defense” (1866).

    Since that time there have been many court cases on the rights of black citizens assuring them of their civil rights. One of the most litigated areas is voting rights. The courts have found that voting stations must be kept where people can get to them even if they are dependent on public transportation and that there cannot be poll taxes place on the using of rights. But when we look at the District of Columbia’s record on the 2nd amendment they still have rules and regulations to insure the vast population cannot use these rights. For one, citizens must go outside DC to purchase a firearm. One must go outside DC to get the required training, and one must go outside DC to shoot at an indoor range. Why is this? To put it simple the leaders of DC have sat down and made the rules to make it as hard as they can for the vast majority of the people that live in DC to be able to exercise their 2nd amendment rights. One can only conclude that the leadership of DC feels the same way as the KKK did in 1871 about black having guns. They feel so strongly about this that they have spent millions of your tax dollars keeping it this way. With all this said, I have to ask where are the Department Of Justice, civil right division, and the NAACP. Are they just for some of your civil rights or are they for all of your civil rights.

  3. gary says:

    time to put human life above that of businesses making trillions out of selling weapons of death to the loonies of this planet

  4. james says:

    if we are going to do that then we must remove care for that are big businesses and kill a lot more people just look at the TX truck accident. in my 25 years of EMS work i seen lot more people kill by car then shooting and that’s with 3 1/2 year in combat.

    • gary says:

      You only have to Google Dick Cheney or others who are reported to be ‘instrumental’ in the wars of this planet with the agenda of selling weapons of death. Eliminate the dollars and the guns and we have a better planet run by better people. Sure, we will still have accidents, etc., but don’t give access to these loonies like just happened or in Norway, etc.

  5. […] Use and distribution of this write-up is subject matter to our Publisher Suggestions whereby the authentic author’s details and copyright should be integrated. USA Gun Politics A customer checks out a .50 caliber rifle at a gun store in Fort Worth, Texas shortly after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. This gun store and many others had record sales at the time amid fears Mr. Obama would restrict gun ownership. Photo … Read more on Voice of America (blog) […]

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


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