America's 'historic attachment to guns'
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France24.com spoke with a specialist in US gun culture and weapons laws following the fatal shooting at a Colorado movie theatre last Friday. Dr. Robert Spitzer sheds light on the origins of and latest developments in a longstanding US debate.
Last Friday, 24-year old James Holmes opened fire on the audience at a suburban Colorado movie theatre, killing 12 and injuring many more. The incident has revived the longstanding debate over guns in America, with many wondering when the US will finally implement stricter gun control laws.
In a conversation with France24.com, Doctor Robert Spitzer, professor of political science at State University of New York at Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control”, offered insight into the American attachment to guns, why US gun laws are lenient, and whether or not President Obama will try to change things.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
FRANCE24: Why have gun control laws in America remained so lax?
Dr Robert Spitzer: In the last decade, the gun issue has been pushed off the American political agenda. One reason is that Democrats at a national level thought the issue hurt them in the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore was pro-gun-control, and he lost. So Democrats started to back away from the gun issue, partly to rebuild their party by attracting more conservative, pro-gun Democrats.
Both the General Social Survey (GSS) and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics show violent crime rates in the US at their lowest point since 1972, and murder rates at their lowest point since the early 1960s.
GSS has also shown that the percentage of Americans who keep a gun at home has declined from roughly 50% in the 1970s to roughly 33% today. Gallup recorded a less marked decline from roughly 50% in the 1970s to 40% today.
Secondly, George W. Bush was the most gun-friendly president in US history. So that enabled the agenda of the gun lobby, especially the NRA [National Rifle Association], to advance greatly.
Thirdly, in 2008, the very conservative Supreme Court said for the first time in US history that there is a personal, individual right of US citizens to own guns [in a decision striking down a ban on handguns in Washington DC]. The second amendment had already been interpreted for over 200 years as saying that, but in reality, the amendment refers to the right of “a well-regulated militia” to bear arms - not any ordinary citizen. The Supreme Court declaration in 2008 provided a degree of legal legitimacy that the gun lobby had long sought.
Another part of the complexity is that there are 50 states; some states have restrictive laws like New York. Others, like Colorado, don’t.
F24: Where does the American public stand on the issue?
RS: Public support for stronger gun laws exists, but gun rights people feel very strongly about their issue. Polls have shown a majority of Americans in favour of stricter gun laws. But this is a case of a relatively apathetic majority up against a small, but highly motivated pro-gun constituency that works on this issue all the time.
There is also a historic attachment to guns in America. Much of it is romanticized and exaggerated, but there certainly is a long strain in our history connecting Americans to guns; guns came to America with the earliest European settlers. In addition, there is a tradition of American individualism. Many Americans believe that the best remedy for their problems or insecurities is to deal with them on their own. Sometimes that means picking up a gun instead of asking for help.
F24: Have incidents like the shooting in Colorado last week, or the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last year, led to a push for stricter gun control laws?
RS: After the shooting at a high school in Columbine in 1999, the federal government enacted new gun measures, but they were ultimately beaten back before they became law.
Other than that, there have been specific legal remedies. There was a law called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban [signed in 1994], but the law was written with an expiry date and Congress let it expire in 2004. That law banned possession of certain types of assault weapons, including the weapon James Holmes used in Aurora last week. The law banned possession of large-capacity bullet clips, so people could only purchase guns that could hold 10 bullets. But since the law expired in 2004, Holmes was able to use a weapon that held 100 bullets at a time. It’s like something out of a science fiction novel, frankly.
After the shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress enacted legislation to improve record-keeping of people with mental problems, so these people would not be able to purchase guns. When someone in America goes to buy a gun, there is a background check process. The gun salesperson submits your name electronically, and checks it against a list that includes felons and those who have been declared mentally incompetent. But there is a big loophole, because before 2007, most states did not report their “mentally incompetent” residents.
Right now there are calls for stronger gun laws, but with no strong sustained national advocacy, little has happened.
F24: Has President Obama tried to change things?
RS: Obama, in his political background, has been a supporter of gun control. However, he clearly made a decision to not press that issue when he became president. He felt he needed to spend his political capital in other areas. America is in the middle of a presidential campaign, and you would think the issue would have to be discussed by candidates. But neither candidate wants to talk about gun control. Obama does not want to inflame the right wing, and he wants to keep the focus on the issues he’s worked on.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is trying to paint himself as more moderate and centrist, and the gun issue is one on which his party is in thrall to the NRA. Romney doesn’t want to offend the NRA people, but he doesn’t want to champion the cause either because it pulls him away from the centre.
The current political environment is not conducive to change on this issue. Neither party at a national level wants to wrap its arms around this subject right now.