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A Guide To Why Mass Shootings Don't Change American Gun Laws

07/10/2017 3:02 AM AEDT | Updated 07/10/2017 3:32 AM AEDT

“There is less hope than ever for fundamental reform of America’s gun laws,” former congressman Steve Israel tells HuffPost.

The Democrat, who represented New York from 2001 to 2017, thinks that, even after the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history left 59 people in Las Vegas on Sunday, gun laws will not be tightened.

The killing has led to calls for bi-partisan legislation, which would require stronger background checks for those buying guns, to finally be passed.

Another gun control advocate, Senator Dianne Feinstein, has introduced a bill to ban devices that accelerate the fire rate of the type the Las Vegas gunman is believed to have used. 

Ethan Miller via Getty Images
Heidi Antonacci (L) and her daughter Jessica Adsit, both of Nevada, attend a prayer vigil held at Mountain Crest Park for the victims of Sunday night's shooting

But Israel does not expect either change to succeed.

“Nothing will happen in Congress. Nothing has happened. In the 16 years I served there were 52 mass shootings, I used to think Congress would act.

“Its action has been confined to lowering US flags, tweeting condolences and holding moments of silence. Too many members of Congress fear the gun lobby more than they fear the kind of things we saw in Las Vegas.”

People often try to explain America’s gun laws with generalisations about culture - such as how America’s frontier history gave it a strong tradition of self-defence and self-sufficiency.

11,720 people have been shot dead in America in 46,829 incidents so far this year. A total of 548 children aged 11 or under have been killed or injured

But Israel focusses on shorter term causes, arguing in an article in the New York Times, that in a partisan age politicians and gun lobbyists are more likely than ever to take extreme positions and refuse to back down.

The failure to stop Americans shooting each other baffles many abroad.

At the time of writing, 11,720 people have been shot dead in America in 46,829 incidents so far this year. A total of 548 children aged 11 or under have been killed or injured.

BBC North America Editor, Jon Sopel, recently told HuffPost that the expectation regular mass shootings would lead to reform - as they did in the UK after the Dunblane massacre - was misplaced.

“You go on the 10 O’Clock News... The presenter says to you: ‘Jon, is this going to lead to a big overhaul of gun laws?’ And you want to say: ‘No, not a chance’,” Sopel said last month.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
Gabby Giffords, who was serving in Congress when she was shot in 2011, addresses a rally with fellow Democrats after the Las Vegas mass shooting, calling for legislation to strengthen background checks 

Britain and Australia both introduced wide-ranging gun bans after mass shootings.

But the right to bear arms - because “a well regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state” - has been enshrined in America’s constitution as long as the right to free speech and freedom of religion. 

Mass murder in America is 'the price of freedom' conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly

As conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly said after Las Vegas, mass murder in America is “the price of freedom”.

Mick North, who lost his five-year-old daughter in the Dunblane massacre and campaigned for gun control in Britain and America, was appalled at the opposition there to control measures he thought urgent.

Ken Cedeno via Getty Images
Barack Obama wipes away tears as he talks about needless shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school during a press briefing in January, 2015

He senses American gun control advocates had grown shyer in the two decades since he first started campaigning, emphasising more and more that they don’t oppose the Second Amendment and are focussing on smaller changes.

“The whole thing has been pushed further and further away from what I would see as sensible measures by what the NRA has done. It’s managed very successfully to push the debate so far out in its direction, that those who want to do something now feel they can’t ask for a lot,” North says.

The NRA is the National Rifle Association, an organisation that has five million members and is one of the most famous pressure groups in the world.

It fights against efforts to make gun ownership harder and casts a long shadow over Washington, grading politicians’ friendliness to gun owners and fighting to unseat its enemies.

Boston Globe via Getty Images
A worker rearranges the guns inside the booth at Commemorative Firearms as fans stopped by to check out guns bearing Trump's motto: 'Make America Great Again'  in Bristol, Tennessee

NRA lobbying has been blamed for sinking gun control measures that stop short of confiscating any weapons and most people supported.

Four months after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children were killed, legislation expanding background checks on those buying guns failed in the Senate. This was despite a poll finding 90 percent of Americans supported expanded background checks. The bill was itself watered down - a proposal to ban assault weapons failed to make the cut.

The NRA moved fast after Sandy Hook. It held a press conference just a week later where its president Wayne LaPierre claimed the solution to a school massacre was more guns, pledging “armed police officers in every single school in the nation”. 

The minority of people who oppose [gun control] laws, especially those who are members of the NRA, tend to be much more willing to base their entire view of their member of Congress or state legislature on that one issue. Prof Jon Vernick, The Center for Gun Policy and Research

As the battle in Congress began, the NRA claimed background checks were only enforceable through a national registry of gun owners.

“Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction — except those between criminals — will somehow make us safer,” LaPierre said.

At a White House press conference after the Senate bill failed, Barack Obama said the NRA “wilfully lied” to galvanise its members against it.

Prof Jon Vernick, co-director at The Center for Gun Policy and Research at John Hopkins University, says some NRA members’ “single-minded focus” on the issue give the organisation the power to defeat control measures, even if they enjoy broad support.

He tells HuffPost: “The minority of people who oppose such laws, especially those who are members of the NRA, tend to be much more willing to base their entire view of their member of Congress or state legislature on that one issue.

“The minority who are opposed to these kind of common sense laws are willing to vote based on that issue alone, to give money on that issue alone, are willing to write members of Congress on that issue alone. That gives them outsized authority.”

Alissa Scheller/HuffPost

Even something as basic as gathering data on gun crimes has been a casualty of the fight.

Data shows a strong correlation between high gun ownership and gun deaths.

But, in 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which forbids US government agencies from doing work that would “advocate or promote gun control”.

The NRA spent $3.2 million on lobbying in 2016. In the same year, leading gun control advocates The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence spent just $152,009 The Center Of Responsive Politics

The effect was to dissuade researchers from conducting research into gun violence. The number of studies published has fallen by 64 percent by 2012.

According to The Center Of Responsive Politics, the NRA spent $3.2 million on lobbying in 2016. In the same year, leading gun control advocates The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence spent just $152,009.

But the NRA’s spending on lobbying is dwarfed by what it spends on getting its allies elected. Last year, it spent $6.2 million on one senate race in North Carolina, helping Republican Richard Burr win re-election.

Tom Williams via Getty Images
Richard Burr's campaign to be re-elected North Carolina senator received more than $6 million from the NRA

He voted against the background checks after Sandy Hook. During the election campaign, Burr joked about putting a “bullseye” on Hillary Clinton, for which he later apologised when the audio of the remark leaked.

After the Las Vegas massacre, he issued a short statement that said nothing about gun control but said he and his wife would be “praying for those lost and their families”.

Republicans are far more likely to receive big gun rights donations

The NRA grades his voting record on guns as “A+”.

Though both sides give money to both parties, Republicans are far more likely to receive big gun rights donations.

Donald Trump received $969,138 from gun rights campaigners and $1,984 from control campaigners, while Hillary Clinton received $48,013 and $1,100,698 respectively.

Both houses of Congress are under Republican control. Vernick says this means the party “doesn’t just control the votes, [they] control the agenda. They control whether bills get hearings or whether they’re even brought up for a vote.”

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Donald Trump addresses the NRA's Leadership Forum in Atlanta, Georgia in April

HuffPost interviewed Republican senators who were unwilling to advocate gun control measures in the wake of Las Vegas. 

Former presidential candidate Ted Cruz said: “The facts are still developing, but it appears this was a crazed madman and sadly violence will always be part of our lives.”

America has not always been so paralysed over the issue. In 1994, Congress legislated a 10-year ban on assault weapons across the country. Attempts to renew this have failed.

“Congress is more polarised than ever,” Israel says. He blames “gerrymandering” - the engineering of districts’ boundaries to overwhelmingly favour one party - for pushing Republicans to more extreme positions to satisfy an increasingly partisan group of constituents.

He also says the NRA itself has become more polarised, arguing it used to support “sensible laws” but, having been driven to extremes in the threat of losing supporters to rival gun groups, now fights without compromise.

The ferocity of the lobby and the partisanship of politicians are not the only factors.

Prof Vernick says the way people die - and who dies - are both reasons Congress has not acted.

The demographics of the legislators and those most at risk of being shot to death matter, he argues.

ROBYN BECK via Getty Images
People gather and light candles at a makeshift memorial near the Mandalay Hotel, where the shooter fired down on a crowd attending a country music festival

He points out that black males aged 15 to 24 are more than 20 times more likely than white males to be shot to death.

He says: “Think about the demographics of members of Congress. Overwhelmingly, they are middle-aged white men. If they were dying at the same rate in gun homicides...

“It’s inconceivable to me that we wouldn’t see more change... It’s a question of who actually is dying.” 

It’s a question of who actually is dying Prof Jon Vernick, The Center for Gun Policy and Research

Prof Vernick also says it is often overlooked that around two thirds of gun deaths in the US were suicides and this is of less interest to policy makers than murder.

He is more optimistic than some campaigners, stressing that more than 20 state legislatures have passed gun control laws, on issues like background checks, since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

As after the Las Vegas shooting, Diane Feinstein introduced a bill to the Senate after Sandy Hook. That bill proposed a ban on assault weapons. It was defeated by a 40 to 60 vote.

David McNew / Reuters
People carry a photo of Trayvon Martin during a march to protest the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, after he was acquitted of shooting Martin dead. Young black men are far more likely to be killed by gunfire than white men

Then, Feinstein castigated her colleagues from the Senate floor, saying they should “show some guts” on the issue.

Her Republican colleague Charles Grassley fired back, saying: “This is a slippery slope of compromising the Second Amendment. You go down that road, you’re going to find it easier to compromise other things.”

When asked if he was optimistic Congress would act in the next few years, former congressman Steve Israel says: “My optimism drained when children were murdered at a small school in Connecticut and President Obama had tears in his eyes and Congress couldn’t even bring itself to do the right thing.

“My optimism drained when our own colleagues were shot [Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011 and Congressman Steve Scalisi was shot earlier this year] and the proximity of the bullets didn’t compel Congress to protect even itself.”

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