Violence isn’t endemic to America. Gun violence is.
The tragic killings of six people including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl and serious injury to Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson this weekend underscored this tragic reality. Gun murders occur in other developed countries, not with anywhere near the frequency.
There are almost 300 million guns in America, a third of them handguns, and almost 100 million are owned by the public. This is the highest concentration of gun ownership in the world. Not surprisingly, the U.S. also has the highest firearm homicide rate, almost 3.5 per 100,000, of any industrialized country. European countries and Japan have only a fraction of such firearm homicides.
The deranged young man who is suspected of committing the Tucson shootings used a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol with a high-capacity magazine that held 30 rounds of ammunition. The gun, which sells for about $500, was purchased at a sporting-goods store. Reportedly, the weapon was purchased by Jared Loughner, who has a history of mental-health issues, according to the community college he attended. The law says background checks are supposed to be run on buyers of semiautomatic weapons, though it’s not uncommon for that requirement to be ignored.
Yet for all the heartfelt outrage engendered by the tragedy ― politicians of every stripe condemned it ― history suggests that little will change. America has had scores of prominent people killed by guns, and any changes are piecemeal and then often rolled back.
In 1981, after Jim Brady, the White House press secretary, was severely and permanently wounded by a gun assailant who was aiming at President Ronald Reagan, Congress enacted the so-called Brady Law, mildly cracking down on the availability of handguns. For most of the last 30 years, all the movement has been toward weakening, not strengthening, that law.
There was a federal assault-weapons ban during the Clinton administration that prohibited the sale of the type of high-capacity magazine that apparently was used by the Tucson shooter. That measure was permitted to expire during George W. Bush’s presidency.
There are multiple reasons why this issue is so uniquely American. Start with culture.
In non-urban and suburban parts of America, especially the West and South, guns are a way of life, a longstanding tradition. Giffords, a respected political moderate, is a defender of gun rights, as are most Arizona politicians.
Moreover, while most Americans support reasonable limits on guns ― semiautomatic pistols are not the weapon of choice for hunters ― that silent majority, in the political world, is drowned out by the gun advocates who feel passionately about their cause. For many of the latter, it is a determinative voting issue.
Four decades ago, two Democratic senators, Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania and Joseph Tydings of Maryland, were defeated, and the conventional wisdom held that their support for gun control was a principal reason. Most subsequent research and analysis indicate it was only a small factor, yet that perception affected congressional politics for years.
At the same time, the clout of the National Rifle Association only grew. There are few lobbies in Washington as powerful or protective of their interests. Any gun laws are seen as a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which cites the need for a well-regulated militia, stocked with arms.
The power of the NRA is pervasive, both in Washington and in state capitals. When Democrats were trying to pass a campaign-finance disclosure measure last year, they had to write a special exemption for the gun lobby to secure majority support in the House. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then- Senator Barack Obama, an urban Democrat, rarely mentioned gun control because he realized the political sensitivities; liberal Democrats such as Ohio Governor Ted Strickland boasted of their support for gun ownership.
Even if these politics could be countered, the courts, especially the Supreme Court, are raising new, and probably insurmountable, obstacles to substantive gun control. Last year, the Court threw out a Chicago gun-control ordinance.
A lot of the details of the Arizona tragedy will emerge and provide a fuller picture of the factors and causes.
It’s difficult not to tentatively conclude that some of the incendiary language in U.S. politics and in Arizona, where the immigration issue stirs strong passions, didn’t have some part in this tragedy, as a Tucson sheriff lamented over the weekend.
It would be outrageously unfair to blame the Tea Party movement or right-wing conservatives for the senseless violence. The vast majority of these citizens, including leaders such as Sarah Palin or Giffords’s Republican challenger last November, are patriotic Americans who eschew violence.
Yet it’s not a reach to wonder if deranged minds are affected when Palin circulates a map of 20 Democrats running for re-election who should be defeated, including Giffords. The map showed their districts targeted by crosshairs. After the election, Palin bragged about defeating 18 of the 20 ―Giffords was one of the two Democrats who won ― that were on her “bull’s-eye” list.
A Palin spokesman, Rebecca Mansour, over the weekend insisted the map was never intended to be about “gun sights” and that it was “repulsive” to politicize the Arizona shootings.
And during the campaign, Giffords’s Republican opponent in her district invited voters to accompany him on an assault-weapon shooting expedition.
Such incitement isn’t unique to conservatives; the political left sometimes crossed the line during the Bush presidency. But when political leaders or elected officials talk of putting opponents in the crosshairs, or seriously suggest that the president of the United States wasn’t really born in America, they provide aid and comfort to the unstable.
The outpouring of emotions, starting with Obama and the new House speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, over what occurred in that Tucson parking lot has been genuine and moving. Let’s hope it isn’t ephemeral.
By Albert Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.