We have all had the same conversation at one time or another: the topic of the most recent mass shooting comes up, and someone says “Well, gun control laws won’t help, guys like this will just buy them illegally, ya know?” Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, history tells a different story. Originally put forth after a mass shooting at a school in Stockton, CA in 1989, the original American ban on assault weapons was bolstered by a 1993 shooting at a law firm in San Francisco. Championed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the 10 year ban on assault weapons had to make some key concessions to get through Congress: it allowed those who already owned their weapons to keep them and instituted a 10 year “sunset provision” by which the ban would expire in 2004 unless expressly renewed by Congress.
The numbers are behind such laws: Christopher Koper, a professor of Criminology at George Mason University suggested that “The law’s significant exemptions ensured that its full effects would occur only gradually over time, and those effects were still unfolding at the time it expired.” James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern, collected data back in 1982 that assault weapons, far less prevalent than they are now, were responsible for nearly 25% of mass shootings. He projected that “Bans on large-capacity magazines are associated with 38 percent fewer fatalities and 77 percent fewer nonfatal injuries when a mass shooting occurred.”
In reality, the potential lives saved by the bill lived up to predictions: mass shootings fell by 37% during the ban, with 43% less lives lost. After the bill lapsed in 2004, mass shooting events increased sharply, by 183%, with a 239% increase in deaths. And yet, the American population seems to have been convinced that stricter gun control laws and bans on large capacity weapons are futile. Years of propaganda by the NRA and far right have left people distinctly sure that bad guys only buy their weapons illegally, good guys with guns can stop them, and any attempt to stymie the flow of mass shootings through gun control would wholly violate the 2nd Amendment.
The Uvalde shooting disproves all of that: the bad guy bought his guns fully legally and the good guys stood outside waiting while he slaughtered school age children. From 1966 to 2019, 77% of guns used in mass shootings were bought legally. Even those with a history of violence have been able to get guns, like the Parkland shooter whose school had reported “violent, racist threats,” or the recent Buffalo shooter, who “had recently been required to undergo psychological evaluation after making menacing, violent comments to high school classmates, but the episode was not enough to set off the state’s “red flag” law.”
Other developed countries have taken much firmer stances on gun control. A mere two weeks after a 1996 shooting that left 35 dead and another 23 injured, Australia had banned semi-automatic weapons, instituted a buyback program, and begun a federal database of gun owners. In the ten years prior to this incident, there were 11 mass shootings. In the 25 years since, there have been only 3. A 1996 shooting at a primary school in Scotland that left 16 students dead led to the banning of all handguns. There hasn’t been a single mass shooting since. A 1989 shooting in Montreal that left 14 students dead led to a 28 day waiting period for purchase, a federal ownership database, and a ban on large capacity magazines. A subsequent 2020 shooting in Nova Scotia led to the banning of over 1000 types of “assault style weapons.” In Israel, you must have a government permit, be at least 27 years old, pass a psychological exam and a gun safety test, and are still limited to 50 bullets and a handgun.
So, if America’s contemporaries are so willing to restrict the purchase and possession of these highly lethal machines, why isn’t America? This is, perhaps, the greatest example of democratic backsliding. The more mass shootings that occur, the more the left calls for gun control, and the more the right cries “Unconstitutional!” The NRA is a prolific donator to GOP politicians, and the resulting passion with which these politicians protect the interests of the organization is little more than plain old corruption and populism. The people are convinced that the elite left is trying to take away their constitutional rights, and their republican representatives are the only ones fighting for them. In reality, that elitist left is trying to stop people from dying.
Covid-19 saw the same phenomena: the right calls for their right to not wear a mask or get vaccinated, with little concern for the others that may fall ill or die as a result of their actions. In America, a culture of every man for himself, intense capitalism, and staunch possessiveness of one’s personal liberty over the community’s wellbeing has created a culture of mass death. Disinformation has allowed the population to be swayed into thinking that they, as legal, upstanding gun owners, are so different from mass shooters, who clearly must get their guns illegally.
By feeding the population “fake news,” promoting an us versus them mentality with the pro-gun control left, and allowing NRA money to corrupt right wing politicians, gun culture in the US has effectively created its own little bubble of democratic erosion. Other advanced democracies have succeeded where America has failed because they lack the immensely strong gun lobbies that we have. Had British politicians campaigns been funded by gun money in 1996, perhaps their reaction to the shooting in Scotland may have been less final. The issue here is unregulated guns and poor mental health care, but the issue is also money in politics. Take away the NRA’s ability to finance entire campaigns, and see how much more malleable the GOP becomes on the issue. Corruption has allowed our children to be shot in their classrooms, and corruption is causing American democracy to erode.