Guns do not kill people, insists the US gun lobby. It is people who do that. It follows that whatever the level of American mass shootings, or its gun homicide rate, the solution is to improve morals not impose gun control. Reducing Americans’ access to firearms would rob them of their constitutional right to self-defence.
Picking holes in such reasoning is easier than shooting fish in a barrel — not least in its distortion of America’s second amendment, which protects the existence of “well regulated” militias, not unregulated private arsenals. But reason is no match for a lobby that can end political careers and make or break presidential campaigns.
The right question is not when will this end but where will it lead? Contrary to received wisdom, it has not always been simple to buy a gun in the United States. Until the mid-20th century, judicial consensus interpreted the second amendment as guaranteeing the right of states to defend against federal tyranny or imperial revenge.
That reading has since been refracted into the untrammelled right of individuals to own almost any firearm they want — and to conceal them in almost any public space. In the words of Warren Burger, the former US chief justice, “the gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud . . . that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Yet it is now an article of faith among conservative jurists, including two-thirds of the US supreme court, and most of America’s state legislatures. The rate of increase of guns in circulation has been steep. In the last decade, the volume of private firearms has jumped more than a third to 120 guns per hundred Americans. The US now accounts for 46 per cent of all private gun ownership worldwide — more than ten times its share of the global population.
Each fresh atrocity, such as the mass shooting on Monday at a July 4 parade in suburban Chicago, leads to an increase in gun sales. The jump in the homicide rate by about 40 per cent in major cities in the last two years has fuelled that insecurity. The more anxious Americans feel about rising crime, the steeper the demand curve. Some of this probably reflects pessimism about the chances of serious gun reform, although the US Senate did recently agree a modest “red flag” law that tightens checks on people under 21 and prohibits sales to all domestic abusers.
Yet the direction of travel is almost all the other way. Earlier this year, the National Rifle Association, the ruthlessly effective gun lobby, celebrated a milestone that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Half of America’s states have now passed laws that let gun owners carry weapons in public without a permit. The first state to pass such a sweeping law was Alaska in 2003. Georgia became the 25th in April. Since then, the Supreme Court has struck down New York’s century-old law that required anyone carrying guns in public to show “proper cause”. The ruling opens the floodgates to many more such challenges.
Bit by bit, but with increasing speed, what remains of US gun control is being demolished. This new age of unregulated guns coincides with the growing militarisation of US society and the equivalent of a cold war in domestic politics. Until 2004, sales of AR-15s and other military-style assault weapons were banned. Now they are flying off the shelves. That particular rifle keeps showing up in mass shootings. It is not just that America has more guns around; they are more lethal than they used to be.
The brute statistics conceal even more disquieting trends. In the last generation, the share of American homes that own guns has actually fallen. Some of this is about hunting’s decline as a US pastime, which is linked to urbanisation. That means there are more guns owned by fewer people. Some homes have caches that could qualify as their own mini-militias. Twenty years ago the NRA mostly advertised hunting gear. Today its website markets tactical battlefield accessories.
As the NRA monetises American paranoia, people ask themselves, “where is safe any more?” Not churches, or schools or shopping malls. One rare refuge is the Supreme Court. A recently foiled attempt on the life of Brett Kavanaugh, one of its nine justices, has prompted tighter security. The court seems disinclined to scrap a rule that makes it unlawful for anyone “to carry or have readily available to the person any ‘firearm’” in the court’s vicinity. Apart from threats to itself, however, America’s highest court is likely to remain unwavering in its support for gun rights.