By Vincy Abraham
What was later described as the second deadliest school shooting, Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty children and six adult staff members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Lanza committed suicide soon after his shooting rampage. An immediate reaction to this incident was the ensuing debate on America’s gun culture. And at the heart of this debate lies the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which states, “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 culture, a word coined by historian Richard Hofstadter in his article America as a Gun Culture (1970), is a prominent part of the American culture and the nation’s frontier history. In Politics of Gun Control, author Robert Spitzer lists a number of factors responsible for the American gun culture as it stands today including the hunting ethos and the militia ethos. He opines that the hunting or sporting ethos was central as hunting provided a source for supplying food and income to the settlers. Hunting skills were also a mark of “manhood”. The militia ethos stemmed from the right of the settlers, during their westward expansion, to protect themselves from Native Indians and foreign armies. In the eighteenth century, due to the lack of money and manpower, maintaining a full time army was nearly impossible and this pushed people (blacks and women were excluded) to take arms to protect their territory .
The gun culture in the present day America is marked by two diametrically opposite positions— the pro-gun control movement and the anti-gun control movement. The pro-gun control movement asserts that there needs to be restrictions placed on the “right to bear arms” in the light of gun violence. This argument is countered by the anti-gun control movement who believe that guns provide a sense of safety and security and gun restrictions are an infringement on the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. However, the arguments presented by both side runs deeper that these superficial reasons. We’ll come back to this debate later.
Both these movements are actively promoting their position through various mechanisms including lobbying. Lobbying is a legitimate activity in the US which seeks to influence the decision making process in Congress, here individuals (lobbyists) advocate and try to “sell” the standpoint of the organizations, groups or people’s interests (those who hire them) to public officials. The anti-gun control organizations like National Rifle Association (NRA) and Gun Owners of America are recognized to be powerful and influential lobbies in the US. Pro-gun control lobbying organizations like the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence is equally influential.
Though gun ownership debate varies from state to state, Republicans are more likely to support the anti-gun control stand. A close inspection of the NRA’s political funding reflects this fact too—it pledged financial support to more Republicans ($961,743 i.e. 88%) than Democrats ($125,650 i.e. 12%) in 2012 . In the case of states, those likely to support restrictions on guns are coastal and more populous states such as New York, New Jersey and California. While Southern states like Alabama and Florida and Midwestern states like Montana and Wyoming are more or less pro-gun .
While it may seem strange to those living in India, issues regarding guns (i.e. gun control and gun culture) is a high profile part of American politics. How high profile? If reports are to be believed, a candidate’s (or political party’s) stand on gun control (pro- or anti-) can make or break his (or their) political ambitions. An often cited example is that of Al Gore’s defeat in his home state of Tennessee. Post election analysis revealed that Gore could have won the 2000 elections, with or without Florida, had he been able to acquire the 11 electoral votes from the state. His pro-gun control stance  was one of many reasons that contributed to his failure to fulfill his objective of becoming the next President. But of course, there are many who are quick to refute this claim. Former President Bill Clinton, too, in his 2004 memoir believed that the Democrats lost the 1994 midterm elections because they passed an assault weapons ban the same year . President Obama too presented a number of proposals for restriction on firearms on January 16, 2013. The move, as predicted, has not been well received by the anti-gun control organizations and this has certainly affected his popularity rates.
Major legislations too have been the outcome of the gun politics debate in the US. The federal gun related laws are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It was the assassination of leaders like Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy that lead to the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. Besides this, there are legislations like—the National Firearms Act (1934), Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Firearms Owners Protection Act, Gun-Free School Zones Act (1990) and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993). However in keeping with the US federal government structure, every state and some local governments have their own gun laws resulting in a patchwork of legislation that varies state to state .
Gun politics is thus, central to American politics and ethos. The “Great American Gun Debate”  comes to the forefront with every act of gun violence. This is particularly true as the issue of gun control has come back to haunt America after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the Hadiya Pendleton mistaken shooting in Chicago on January 29th, 2013. The Pendleton shooting, in fact, hit close to home for President Obama as she was killed about a mile away from Obama’s home in Chicago and had earlier performed at his inauguration in Washington .
The two incidents of shooting created an emotionally charged environment that pro-gun control activists use to demonstrate the security threat that guns pose. The human cost of gun violence must be noted in this sense. They argued that easy accessibility to guns is a cause of concern. Though gun homicides tend to grab national and international headlines, pro gun control activists also point out to the other gun related crimes—gun suicides, unintentional shooting, the usage of firearms in robberies and aggravated assault. Gang rivalries especially in poorer neighborhoods of populous cities have become a thriving arena for gun violence and a major cause of concern. It is interesting to note that these activists believe that guns promote terror, anarchy, racism and sexism . They feel that guns have no role in a developed modern society  and that it is morally wrong. They view that guns as an instrument of aggression, as firearms are the third leading cause of injury related death (behind poisoning and motor vehicle accidents) . They press for gun restrictions and total gun bans in the light of gun violence.
The anti-gun control lobby however, refutes all these arguments stating that gun control is actually an infringement on Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms”. While some claim that having a gun in the household provides a sense of security and protection as the crime rates escalates, others relate guns rights with recreational activities like hunting and other sporting activities. Gun collecting is also a hobby, as was in the case of Lanza’s mother (this gave Lanza access to the three semi-automatic firearms and a combat shotgun which were recovered at the crime scene).
Anti-gun control activists use adages like “guns don’t kill, people do”. This argument points out that a gun by itself cannot be termed as ‘inherently good’ and ‘inherently bad’ and this categorization is “fundamentally silly” .
While security seems to be the obvious issue here, there is a deeper layer to the gun control debate. It is interesting to know the general demographic characteristics of both groups. A Gallup poll  revealed that 3 in 10 Americans personally owned a gun. The most common reasons for gun ownership were—protection against crime, for hunting and for target shooting. Males were more likely to own guns, as were Southerners and Midwesterners, older Americans and Republicans. We have to rely on surveys and polls to provide a rough estimate as the US does not have a national gun registry.
Both positions present valid and convincing arguments favoring or against gun control in their own right. The debate thus, ensues and is circular in nature as there is no established causal link between gun and violence. With every shooting making headline, the issue will continue to come to the forefront with emotional resonance. Pro-gun control activists will once again push for gun restrictions and tougher gun laws, but this will countered by the anti-gun control activists using a number of methods. Eventually the debate may become dormant and lose steam before another shooting resurrects it. In fact, looking at the difficulty in reaching a solution, the “Great American Gun Debate” will always exist and be a part of the American ethos. Nonetheless, the answer could lie in the federal structure of the US government itself. Local and state governments can enact gun laws according to the needs of the local population seeing the difficulty of finding a common ground in federal legislations.
On a personal note—before I started my research on this topic, the answer, without hesitation, seemed clear: pro-gun control (also called anti-gun) was the way forward. I have in the past staunchly supported the anti gun stand as the idea of private ownership of firearms was almost foreign to me. However, the more I studied the two positions in the gun debate, the more challenging it became to take a stand. At present, this issue remains an unresolved dilemma for me and this could also be true for the American government and its people—both past and present. However I would like to hear your opinion on this issue, do leave a comment! What is your take on this issue? Where do you stand in the gun debate and why?
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