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Armed to the teeth: The US obsession with guns

Senior Democrat leads moves in Congress to challenge the power and insidious influence of the National Rifle Association
  • @timwalker

Amid fears that the Newtown shootings will do nothing to shake the US into tightening gun laws, there was a glimmer of hope last night that, finally, something might happen.

A senior Democrat, John Larson, who represents Connecticut, called for Congress to look at sweeping new gun control measures, including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

This followed President Obama's call on Friday for "meaningful action" on gun violence, which was criticised as being too vague. Mr Larson, who is chair of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, said Congress must vote quickly on tighter gun controls, including the institution of background checks for all gun sales.

He added: "Politics be darned. Of the 12 deadliest shootings in our nation's history, half of them have happened in the last five years. And there is not a single person in America who doesn't fear it will happen again." He is backed by the Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, New York Democrat Representative Carolyn McCarthy and California Representative George Miller.

An indication of the forces that stand between the US and more stringent gun control laws was evident in this year's Tennessee congressional race. Republican Debra Maggart had not faced a primary challenge for her seat in the state's House of Representatives since her election in 2004. But in August she lost to a rival GOP candidate who was backed by the National Rifle Association. In an ad campaign, the NRA called Ms Maggart an enemy of the constitution, because she opposed a law allowing employees to bring guns to the workplace. The NRA claims the measure – already in place in 17 other states – is necessary for commuters to protect themselves on their journey to work.

When politicians warn against politicising a mass shooting in the US, they are warning against discussion of reforming the gun laws. And the reason politicians are wary of gun law reform is fear of the NRA. The most powerful of the country's countless lobby groups is also its oldest continuously operating civil rights organisation. It was formed in 1871 by two Civil War veterans – one a journalist, the other a lawyer – who hoped to improve the nation's marksmanship. For well over half a century, it devoted itself to sporting pursuits.

The NRA's legislative affairs division was formed during the debate over the National Firearms Act of 1934, which it supported, as it did the Gun Control Act of 1968. Together, the two acts created a licensing and tax system for the private ownership of firearms. It was only in the 1970s that the NRA became the aggressively conservative, libertarian organisation it is today, proclaiming the civil right of citizens to bear arms, on the basis of the constitution's ambiguously worded second amendment. Today, it sponsors shooting competitions, publishes magazines such as American Rifleman, sponsors safety training programmes such as the two-day "NRA Basic Personal Protection Outside the Home" course, and actively involves itself in politics.

In 2010, the NRA had a budget of $307m. It boasts 4.3 million members, and a formidable record of mobilising them on issues at the fringes of its supposed remit. During the healthcare reform negotiations of 2010, for example, the group's lobbyists persuaded the Democrat Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to include a provision in the bill preventing insurance companies from charging higher premiums to gun-owners. As long ago as 1994, Bill Clinton claimed in his memoir that the NRA was responsible for so many congressional election defeats that it could take credit for making his Republican nemesis, Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker.

The organisation has also successfully suppressed research into the relationship between guns and violence in the US. In 1993, the Center for Disease Control funded a study which found that having a gun in one's home increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance, and very rarely acted as protection. In 1996, an NRA-backed Republican congressman, Jay Dickey of Arkansas, pushed through a cut of $2.6m to the CDC's budget – coincidentally, the exact amount the Center spent annually on firearms-related research.

More recently, the NRA championed the Stand Your Ground law, which meant that Florida police refrained from charging George Zimmerman immediately after he shot Trayvon Martin in that state in February. When the organisation was invited to discuss policy with gun control advocates and the Justice Department, following the shooting of congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 others in Tucson in 2011, its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, refused, saying: "Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the second amendment?"

The role of NRA president was famously filled by Charlton Heston between 1998 and 2003. The present incumbent is David Keene, who worked on US presidential campaigns for both Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. Eight presidents have been association members, including Reagan, who, in 1980, was the first candidate to be officially endorsed by the NRA. Before the 2012 race was decided, Mr Keene called it "perhaps the most crucial election, from a second amendment standpoint, in our lifetimes". In 2008, the organisation spent $100m in an attempt to defeat Barack Obama at the ballot box, claiming his victory would lead to a gun ban. This year, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney wooed NRA members at their annual convention in St Louis, saying: "We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families. President Obama has not. I will."

A Reuters/Ipsos poll in April, prior to that convention, found that 68 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of the NRA, including 55 per cent of Democrats. That was eight months ago, since when there have been mass shootings in Seattle, in Aurora, Colorado, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in Minneapolis, in Portland, Oregon, and now in Newtown, Connecticut.

The USA's other worst mass shootings

16 April 2008 Virginia Tech campus, Blacksburg, VA: 32 dead plus gunman Seung Hui Cho.

16 October 1991 Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas: 23 dead plus gunman George Hennard.

18 July 1984 McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California: 21 dead plus gunman James Oliver Huberty.

1 August 1966 University of Texas at Austin: 16 dead plus gunman Charles Whitman.

20 August 1986 Post office in Edmond, Oklahoma: 14 dead plus gunman Patrick Sherrill.

20 April 1999 Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado: 13 dead plus gunmen, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

3 April 2009 Immigration services centre in Binghamton, New York: 13 dead plus gunman Jiverly Wong.

5 November 2009 Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas: 13 killed by Nidal Malik Hasan.

6 September 1946 Camden, New Jersey: 13 killed by Howard Unruh.