07/10/2015 9:28 AM AEDT | Updated 28/12/2016 8:52 AM AEDT

Why America Won't Quit Guns

History, politics and Hollywood give firearms an implacable hold.

Steve Dipaola/Reuters
People take part in a candlelight vigil following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

WASHINGTON -- Sandy Hook. Charleston. Roseburg. The ghastly roll call of gun violence in America is ever lengthening.

The United States has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the world (Yemen is a rather distant second) and the highest incidence of gun deaths in the developed world. Yet a toxic mix of history, culture, politics and money is preventing -- and will continue to prevent -- the U.S. from significantly restricting the private ownership of firearms. 

Here's why:

Look Above The Mantel. The bald eagle is one symbol of America, but we could have just as appropriately chosen a gun -- specifically, a Pennsylvania or Kentucky long rifle. That very accurate firearm, perfected by immigrant German gunsmiths, allowed European settlers to hunt animals through vast forests, trade and fight with Native Americans, and shoot more heavily armed and traditionally organized French and British foes at long range.

Just because colonial sharpshooters helped win U.S. independence doesn't mean that today Americans have to be able to buy 12 Glock pistols a year. But our firearms-heavy history has been manipulated into potent propaganda by, among others, the powerful National Rifle Association.

So there's a lot of emotional firepower left in the American birth myth. As a reporter in Kentucky and Tennessee, I would enter many a home -- many a prosperous home -- in which a long rifle was displayed above the mantel in the parlor. In earlier times, it was placed there for easy access in a crisis; now it was there as a matter of pride, patriotism and libertarian philosophy.

"It's about power, and the power of an individual to decide for himself," said Craig Shirley, a historian and NRA advocate.

No other country has quite this history. Take Australia, another vast nation with a violent past, which has managed to greatly cut back on guns. It doesn't have the same DNA. The First Peoples there were not as organized or antagonistic to the European invaders. Those newcomers did not fight with European armies or, for that matter, weaker land-based neighbors. Aussies didn't gain their independence through war. 

The U.S. Constitution. The United States is not the only country in the world to enshrine gun rights in its constitution. (Mexico and Guatemala are the other two.) But the U.S. language is unlimited and has been broadly interpreted by a Supreme Court that is itself unusually powerful.  

The American Founders supported the right "to bear arms" as part of their Enlightenment belief that multiple sources of power in a nation would prevent centralized tyranny. That's why the language of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is couched in terms of preserving local militias as a counterweight to central authority.

Over time, however, the Second Amendment has come to be viewed as conferring a personal constitutional right. It would be hard, if not impossible, to reverse that fervent belief. 

Protect Yourself. From the first fur trappers and pioneers, to today's ranchers and big-city grifters, the tradition of having a gun to protect yourself in the wild or in wild society runs deep. Policing was light and standing armies rare in America until well into the 20th century, and across the sheer space of the U.S., many people lived far from neighborly help.

That Wild West ethos resonates every time violence strikes another community. A sad but inevitable result of recent shootings has been an uptick in support for private gun ownership as a means of protection in the home.

Big Business. The NRA likes to think of itself as a guardian of constitutional freedom, but it also operates like a trade association. Stripped to its economic essentials, the NRA's goal is to protect firearms manufacturers and increase gun sales.

And business is booming once again. Guns are a $10 billion a year industry in the U.S. today. 

The Power Of Rural Life. Americans, like people worldwide, tend to live in cities and large metropolitan areas. But the demands of rural life remain disproportionately powerful in U.S. politics. The math of the Electoral College (which actually elects the president) and the way districts are drawn for the U.S. House of Representatives both favor "red" states, which are often less densely populated, more agricultural and more pro-gun. Even "blue" states may tread lightly on firearms.

Just ask Sen. Bernie Sanders. As a self-described democratic socialist, the presidential candidate might be expected to lead the crusade for gun control. But it's unlikely that he will.

Though he was born in Brooklyn and educated in Chicago, Sanders has for most of his life been a politician in Vermont. Yes, it's a progressive state. But it's also a rural one. Firearms are a source of recreation and food -- and evoke the state's proud history of independence stretching back to the 18th century.

Polls show that Vermonters, like other Americans, support background checks for gun purchases. Yet even that limited idea is stalled in the state legislature.

Which is why Sanders, while calling for "sensible gun legislation," added that "you got a whole lot of states in this country where people want virtually no gun control at all. And if we are going to have some success, we are going to have to start talking to each other."

Hollywood. The entertainment industry sells myth, patriotism, conflict, heroism and blood -- which means, from the start, movies and TV shows have glorified guns.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were TV shows that focused on the unique features of the protagonist's gun and ammunition. -- "The Lone Ranger," "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," "The Rifleman," "Yancey Derringer."

Film directors from D.W. Griffith to John Ford to Quentin Tarantino have given guns a central role. Obi-Wan's invisibly administered "force" or Jackie Chan's black-belt moves notwithstanding, it's a "Straight Outta Compton" world on screen.

Political Dead Aim. Appropriately, the NRA is the "long rifle" of American politics. It aims precisely, accurately and with deadly force at one kind of target: anyone who opposes the broadest possible interpretation of gun rights in the U.S.

It's a strategy well suited to modern American politics, in which broad party coalitions matter less than precise issue targeting by well-funded grass-roots groups.

The NRA's clout in Congress is legendary and all but unrivaled, which is why little if any new legislation is likely after the massacre in Roseburg.

Or after the next catastrophe.