In 1839 English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. With this Lytton argued that the written word is more effective than violence in creating political and social change. But what happens when the pen is protecting the sword? More specifically, what happens when legislation- or the lack thereof- is protecting recurring violence? Assessing passed and failed legislation in the United States surrounding gun violence sheds light on the epidemic’s politicisation and the federal government’s inability to stop these all-too-often tragedies.
In the United States gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and young adults. To paint a broader picture, gun violence rivals childhood cancer and motor vehicle crashes. Despite the threats to public life and social safety, until June of 2022, no federal gun regulation had been passed in 30 years.
Prior to President Biden’s act titled Protecting Our Kids Act, which was passed in June 2022, the most recent federal bill pertaining to gun regulation was passed in 1994. This act was titled the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. It was pushed through the U.S. Senate and signed into action by President Bill Clinton. The ban barred the manufacturing and possession of semiautomatic weapons and was given a sunset date of 10 years. This meant that the law needed to be reauthorized in 2004, which it was not. The initial success of this bill is partially because of the political climate in which it was passed. During this era, gun legislation was politically intertwined with curbing crime rather than the issue of minimising gun sales for safety purposes. This brought a greater number of Congressional Republicans to vote for the bill. Evaluating the reason behind the success of the act it illustrates the political framing required to pass laws surrounding gun regulation.
Despite the initial success of this bill, gun legislation became much harder to pass in the following decades. After the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012, President Barack Obama went to great lengths to try and pass tightened gun regulations. Yet, all the proposed bills failed in the Senate in April 2013. Despite the “thoughts and prayers” sent to the families of Sandy Hook, the number of mass shootings escalated. After shootings in San Bernardino, California, and at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando Florida in 2015 and 2016, respectively, US politicians once again proposed gun regulation, this time in the form of more stringent and common background checks. All attempts at federal legislation failed. The failure of gun control following mass shootings and public outcry draws confusion over Congress’s lack of action. How can the federal government neglect to pass seemingly logical legislation on a current and relevant threat?
The answer to this is not simple, nor is it going to be fully answered in this article. But, in order to touch the surface it is vital to look at the Republican argument against gun control.
The legislation mentioned above was consistently rejected because of a lack of Congressional support from Republicans. This undeviating opposition by the Republican party stems from individual congressional fear that they will be voted out of office if they were to approve gun control legislation. For example, in May of 2022, Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota was asked what the reaction would be from voters back home if he were to support any significant form of gun control. He responded by saying “most would probably throw me out of office". This touches on the deeply conservative base of voters who view unregulated gun ownership as a “sacred privilege enshrined in the Constitution” that is not to be infringed upon. This Republican perspective frames gun control as taking away citizens’ constitutional rights, making federal action to protect American lives perceived to be intolerable. Moreover, the different narratives and interpretations of the law surrounding guns presented by competing parties have turned a public safety issue into a political one.
Despite politicians' failures to pass federal gun control bills, Biden was able to break the 30-year drought by passing a bipartisan bill titled the Protecting Our Kids Act. The bill was passed on June 9, 2022, in the wake of multiple tragic mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York. The reforms outlined in the bill included tougher background checks, $15 billion in federal funding for mental health programs and school security upgrades, and a $750 million dollar budget to encourage states to implement “red flag” laws. Although Biden didn’t achieve everything he planned to, such as banning the assault weapons used in both the Texas and Buffalo shootings, he passed some substantial legislation at the federal level. This offers hope that Republicans and Democrats will be able to create successful legislation in the future that will curb the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.
The history of gun control in the United States exhibits how politics has divided the issue to the point of making reform to curb gun violence an exception to the rule. The polarisation of this issue is nothing new, yet with the most recent bill based undern Biden, the potential for greater federal regulation and the fight to end gun violence has gained some ground.