Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Gun ownership in the United States has traditionally been something that’s difficult to grasp for a British audience.
With gun ownership here heavily regulated and thus limited – legally – to rural communities and field sports, there is no direct link in the social or political narrative in the UK between gun ownership and freedom. In the United States, the National Rifle Association has achieved the seemingly unthinkable – they have monopolised and redefined a word: “freedom”.
To regulate gun ownership is to directly threaten the freedom of American citizens. To increase background checks and the ease with which someone, anyone, can buy a gun is to limit the freedom of citizens enshrined in the constitution. To restrict the purchase of bump stocks, which turn a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun worthy only of a shooting range or a battlefield, is to tell Americans what they can and can’t do. With the benefit of a committed membership, an established political network and deep pockets to fund electoral races and candidacies in red and purple states, the NRA has become an articulate voice that has turned those three ideas into the unchallenged political narrative.
If not now, when?
The United States has suffered miserably at the hands of gun crime. No amount of statistics or facts can begin to colour the emotional impact of these incidents, but they make compelling and required reading.
In October 2017, a gunman on the Las Vegas strip killed 58 people and left 851 injured. In response, politicians offered their thoughts and prayers.
Last week in a Florida school, a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people after triggering fire alarms that coaxed students out of their classrooms and into the line of fire. In response, politicians offered their thoughts and prayers.
It is a cycle that has become all too familiar in a country that has become almost immune to gun violence and the wretched impact it has on the communities that fall victim to it. There is now a renewed feeling that a political response is possible, after a period of thoughts, prayers and shoulder-shrugging best typified by the non-reaction that followed the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012. It begged the question: if 20 primary school students and six members of school staff being murdered at the hands of a gunman doesn’t plunge Washington into action, what will?
For President Trump, an opportunity to do something
President Trump has initiated the process of reform, instructing the Department of Justice and the ATF to review the regulation of bump stocks. The President “doesn’t support the use of those accessories”, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, said. He has signed a memorandum directing the Attorney General to ban all devices that turn illegal weapons into machine guns.
The President also tweeted his support for increasing background checks, “whether we are Republican or Democrat”. For a president who basked in the glory of being described as a bipartisan dealmaker in September, there may be a clear political temptation to carve out a middle ground between Democrats who want wholesale regulation and Republicans who will need to be convinced of the political expedience of going against a core grassroots group.
For some, it is a start but will not go far enough. In reality, it may be as far as the President is able to push regulatory change in a midterm election year. Given the status of gun ownership and the political ideology tied to it described above, it would take a brave Republican president to go against the NRA nine months ahead of a midterm election.
Will it be any different this time?
As with any political debate in Washington, so much of the gun control conversation comes down to electoral winners and losers. It goes without saying that it will take huge political bravery for any Republican to speak out in favour of increased gun control. The NRA will continue to make the case that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, citing examples of citizen interventions. But the Trump administration backing any kind of reform, whether piecemeal or wholesale, is a deconstruction of the fundamental argument that legislation will not solve the problem of gun crime.
Research by Everytown for gun safety, an advocacy group, shows that there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America since 2013, an average of about one a week. With 17 already in 2018, there is a growing feeling that now is the time to act. But that is something we have heard before – and will probably hear again.