Joke or not, what Donald Trump said about Hillary Clinton and the gun lobby was, sadly, true. There is a reason, after all, why successive presidents have failed to reform America’s permissive gun laws and change the pervasive gun culture, let alone alter the Second Amendment of the United States constitution, which famously enshrines the right to bear arms. That reason is the power and wealth of the National Rifle Association, among others.
Here is one organisation that seems determined to live up to its chilling motto: “I'll give you my gun when you pry (or take) it from my cold, dead hands.”
Presumably, that is not meant as a joke either. Although not uniformly against any gun law reform – it has in the past supported federal legislation aimed at tackling gangsters, for example – the NRA has successfully opposed the single measure that might militate against the sort of mass shootings that have shocked America and the world all too often in recent decades: a prohibition on assault weapons.
When the Founding Fathers wrote their much admired framework for the governance of America in the late 18th century, it was a world of muskets and militias. If it was anything, the Second Amendment sprung from the revolutionary experience of the American War of Independence, and the ancient right to self-defence. They could not have foreseen the destructive power of modern weaponry, still less the deranged people who would put it to such indiscriminate use.
America has seen too many school shootings, too many attacks on its police and too many assassinations. And yet the power of the Second Amendment, and the groups that pervert its meaning and intention for their own ends, has frustrated most attempts to limit the right to own a weapon that can fire 2kg of ammunition in a five-second burst. Limits on assault gun ownership were enacted in 1994, following yet another mass shooting at a school, but the ban lapsed in 2004, and no president has been able to revive it, despite many atrocities since. Perhaps America has become inured to the horror of mass shootings.
Influential and well-organised as the NRA is, with its five million members, it is dwarfed by America’s total number of gun owners. One in three Americans – around 200 million adults – own one or more weapons, some 300 million units between them. So the long history of home weaponry, the vast stock of rifles and pistols and the sheer ubiquity of firearms also have a good deal to do with America’s resistance to change in this field.
This has always puzzled foreigners, and particular Europeans, where, until the fall of the iron Curtain and the Balkans wars, even criminals found it difficult to acquire firearms in most states. Widespread gun ownership is not the cause of America’s gun-crime problem. After all, guns are almost as readily obtainable in Canada and Switzerland, with much lower ownership and homicide rates. There is something deeply and damagingly entrenched in the culture of the United States that has allowed the likes of Donald Trump and the NRA to win sufficient support that they can block virtually any attempt to protect innocent Americans from carnage. Whoever wins the presidential election, they are unlikely to be able to change that, even if they want to, and whoever they promote to the Supreme Court. The cold hand of the gun owner will prevent that.
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