The effective Republican prohibition of any meaningful debate on gun reform represents many of the hallmarks of anti-democratic practices: the filibuster, money in politics, and polarization …
Rather than attempting to repeat the tired argument over the specific phrasing of the Second Amendment and quibbling over the definition of a “well regulated militia“ it is far more valuable to question the very validity of the second amendment in the modern day. Treating the Second Amendment as a chapter of constitutional gospel that cannot be changed or adapted to the modern context, as is so often the Republican strategy for dismissing the possibility of gun reform, is to dramatically misinterpret the intentions of the founding fathers. Though a majority of the American public support specific gun reforms such as universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, meaningful reform has been stymied by anti-democratic efforts within the Senate, namely the filibuster, and the Republicans unwillingness to defy the will of the gun lobby. Through the politicization of the Second amendment, significant misinformation about the dangers of guns, and with significant financial support from powerful lobbying groups like the NRA and gun manufacturers, the Republican party has made supporting guns a prerequisite for membership within their party or even the possibility of being elected. The effective Republican prohibition of any meaningful debate on gun reform represents many of the hallmarks of anti-democratic practices: use of democratic institutions to undermine democracy, the corruption of politicians by lobbying groups in such a manner as to undermine the very definition of democracy, and the polarization of the public through the spread of misinformation.
For decades, the NRA has given enormous financial resources to politicians willing to promote the protection and expansion of gun rights. Their strategic lobbying effort has been so successful at advancing their agenda that it has resulted in the term “Republican” being synonymous with “Pro Gun”. Indeed, being “Pro Gun” is a necessary prerequisite for any Republican candidate for office to have any chance of victory. And any if a candidate does not espouse pro-Second Amendment attitudes, this all but dooms their political careers as they will not have the ability to compete against NRA-backed candidates. This aspect of modern Republican politics flies in the face of the definition of democracy, as one of the most important aspects of any democracy is the presence of competitive elections. As described by Seymour Lipset, “[Democracy] is a social mechanism for the resolution of the problem of societal decision-making among conflicting interest groups which permits the largest possible part of the population to influence these decisions through their ability to choose among alternative contenders for political office.” (Lipset, 71) The Republican party’s ability to gain and remain in office within Congress so long as they toe the party line and support gun rights has in fact done away with the crucial competitive aspect of democracy within the United States. Indeed, if it is nearly impossible to unseat an incumbent Senator simply because they have the financial backing of the NRA, this indicates the Republican party’s willingness to play by undemocratic rules and infringe upon the competitiveness of office which is a staple of any functioning democracy. One only has to look to the long list of Republican Congressmen who receive funding from the NRA to see how much influence this powerful interest group has over the government. And as Eric Lutz explained in an op-ed for Vanity Fair, for Republican Lawmakers, supporting gun rights and the NRA is a matter of political survival “Their political careers are being bankrolled, through direct donations and indirect contributions like attack ads against opponents, by the very industry their constituents want them to do more to regulate.”
One of the most anti-democratic mechanisms within Senate procedure is the filibuster. The filibuster allows minority senators to prolong a debate such that it prevents any decision being made and thus blocking any legislation they object to. While Senate minorities previously used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation, Senators now also use this instrument to block even the mention of gun reform within Congress. As described by Ronald Browstein of the Atlantic “…gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule—the filibuster—that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans.” The reason that Congress can have no meaningful debate on gun reform is that Republicans are able to prevent legislation from going anywhere. The filibuster was used to block legislation after the Sandy Hook Massacre, and it will surely be used again after the shooting in Uvalde.
The final component of the anti-democratic Republican strategy to uphold gun rights has been the systematic spread of misinformation on the dangers of gun ownership, as well as the polarization of the issue by tying gun ownership to political and social identity. The Republican party has successfully tied their brand to images of pride, patriotism, freedom, and national identity, while portraying those in favor of gun reform as weak, cowardly, and unpatriotic. As discussed by Jonathan Haidt of the Atlantic, the creation of such polarization is exactly what James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers, described in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward faction. In Madison’s words, humans have a tendency towards dividing into teams or parties that create such “mutual animosity” that they “are much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Gun reform is one such issue. Rather than allowing the American people to have reasoned debate and vote with informed opinions on the value of gun reform, the Republican party has tied gun ownership to identity, thus making any attempts to infringe upon gun rights an assault on a person’s very moral character. Furthermore, the Republican party has successfully prevented valuable research and investigation into the dangers of guns from being performed and disseminated. A major example of this is the 1993 federal funding freeze on gun violence research which resulted in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ending any research on the topic. Without objective information on gun violence, Republicans have been able to spread whatever information best suits their arguments regardless of the truth.
The lack of gun reform in the United States is fundamentally anti-democratic, and the strategies the NRA and Republicans employ to block any debate on the topic prove this. Though one can look at events like the passing of gun control legislation in the House of Representatives as a sign for hope, due to undemocratic mechanisms like the filibuster, the fate of this legislation is already sealed within the Senate. Until Republicans decide to develop a moral compass and stand up to the NRA, any hopes for gun reform are just that; hope. Until then, we will be forced to watch more Congressional hearings in the future by the aggrieved parents of children killed by gun violence while Republican senators look on with vacant and bored expression as we have witnessed in the Uvalde hearings.
Victor Agbafe. “The Vast Majority of Americans Support Universal Background Checks. Why Doesn’t Congress?” Harvard Kennedy School-Institute of Politics https://iop.harvard.edu/get-involved/harvard-political-review/vast-majority-americans-support-universal-background-checks
Ewan Palmer. “Full List of Republican Senators Who Receive FUnding From the NRA” Newsweek. May 26, 2022 https://www.newsweek.com/republican-senators-nra-funding-texas-school-shooting-uvalde-1710332
Eric Lutz. “The NRA is Pouring Millions Into Blocking Gun Violence Prevention” Vanity Fair. May 26, 2022 https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/05/nra-blocking-gun-control-ted-cruz-uvalde-shooting
Caroline Fredrickson.“The Case Against the Filibuster” The Brennan Center. October 30, 2020 https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/case-against-filibuster
Ronald Brownstein. “The Real Reason America Doesnt Have Gun Control” The Atlantic. May 25, 2022 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/05/senate-state-bias-filibuster-blocking-gun-control-legislation/638425/
Adam Jentleson. “The Founders Never Envisioned a Filibuster Being Used to Block Gun Control After Massacres” The Intercept. May 26, 2022 https://theintercept.com/2022/05/26/gun-control-senate-filibuster-minority-rule/
Jonathan Haidt. “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid: It’s not just a phase.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2022 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/
Christin Jamieson. “Gun violence research: History of the federal funding freeze” American Psychological Association. February 2013 https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2013/02/gun-violence
Catie Edmondson. “The House passed wide-ranging gun control legislation, but it is certain to fail in the Senate.” The New York Times. June 8, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/06/08/us/gun-violence-hearing-uvalde-buffalo?smid=url-share#the-house-passed-wide-ranging-gun-control-legislation-but-it-is-certain-to-die-in-the-senate
Annie Karni. “Uvalde Voices Plead With Congress for Action on Gun Control” The New York Times. June 8, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/08/us/uvalde-shooting-testimony-gun-control.html
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