Letter from Washington
To Democrats Abroad
28 February 2018
Executive Director Emeritus
You Americans abroad are likely to be a lot safer than us Americans at home.
Seventeen people were murdered and 14 more wounded on February 14 by a 19 year old white man in Parkland Florida using a military style assault gun. Our plague of gun violence has hit the front pages again as it did in 2012 after the murder of 28 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. What is it that is finally getting political attention when the 15,000 gun deaths and 31,200 gun woundings last year did not stir a political ripple?
That makes the United States Number 1 in gun deaths per 100,000 residents among the 162 sovereign states? Our neighbor Canada is Number 10, the UK is Number 82 and Japan is Number 162.
About half of us see gun violence as a very big problem in the US. What to do about it depends on your political leanings. Democrats want gun control. Republicans don’t.
Hey! Guns R Us!
Thirty percent of us own a gun and 42% of us live in a household with a gun. Three quarters of gun owners could never see themselves not owning a gun. And, just as many believe that the right to own guns is an essential freedom - like free speech, the right to vote, freedom of religion. This is also a white, less educated guy thing. About half of white men own a gun as do white men without a bachelor’s degree. There is also a rural - urban divide. Almost half (46%) of rural residents own a gun compared with only 19% in urban areas. More than half (54%) of men who own guns say all or most of their friends do too. These gun owners (67%) say they have a gun for protection and about 40% of them say they always have a loaded gun within easy reach.
Since a majority believe that gun violence is a national problem, what should be done to contain it? Preventing the mentally ill and those on a no-fly list from gun purchase is generally agreed by both owners and non-gun owners. That’s about as far as agreement goes. Not on creating a federal gun purchase data base, banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines or allowing teachers to be armed, or shortening the waiting period to buy a gun or allowing concealed weapons without a permit.
The partisan split spans the whole range of gun control measures. Except for preventing the mentally ill from buying guns, Democrats and Republicans are far apart. Trump has proposed arming teachers. That resonates with 81% of Republicans but only half as many Democrats. With teachers, not so much. Maybe that has to do with gun ownership. About 44% of Republicans are gun owners compared to half that many Democrats.
The Florida killings have focused attention on the National Rifle Association, the NRA. It is the national defender of our merchants of death. It spent almost $52 million in 2016 in support of the election of Trump including almost $20 million to defeat Hillary Clinton. No wonder Trump and the NRA have a love affair. He explained it all last April speaking to the NRA’s national convention:
“You came through big for me, and I am going to come through for you. The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
That was before February 28.
Yesterday, Trump astonished Democrats and horrified Republicans in a meeting with both when he called for “strong measures” to impose background checks on gun buyers, greater police power to seize weapons from the mentally disturbed, banning of bump stocks and raising the age limit for the purchase of assault weapons.
That is the Republican President. It remains to be seen whether he actually goes to bat for these measures in the face of NRA and Republican opposition. Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, rejects banning the sale of assault weapons: “"We shouldn't be banning guns for law abiding citizens.” The most that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would support is improving the system of background checks.
Among the 54 Republican Senators, 22 took NRA money (sometimes minor sums) and 32 took none. Only one of 49 Democratic Senators did so. Some 307 House Republicans received NRA money in 2018 and only 6 did not. Of the 193 Democratic members of the House, only 23 took NRA money.
More than 167 Democrats introduced the “Assault Weapons Ban of 2018" on 26 February. It would make it “unlawful for a person to import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, a semiautomatic assault weapon.” It specifically names at least 205 guns that fit the description, including the AK-47 and the AR-15, the latter of which was used by Nikolas Cruz when he opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this month and killed 17 people.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a similar bill last year. Her bill has 26 co-sponsors including three Democrats who have signed on since the school shooting this month in Parkland. But, it will go nowhere in the Republican controlled Senate.
Does gun control work?
States with the most strict gun controls have the lowest rates of gun deaths (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York) while those with the most lax laws (Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana) have the highest.
Take Connecticut. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, it enacted tough control measures. It expanded its ban on assault weapons, prohibited the sale of large capacity magazines, required the registration of existing assault weapons and large capacity magazines, required background checks for all firearms sales and created a registry of weapons offenders.The number of firearms deaths (homicides, suicides and accidents) fell from 226 in 2012 to 164 in 2016.
New York passed even tougher controls a month after Sandy Hook.. It ranks 48th in gun death rates after Connecticut at 46th..
The prospects for enacting any meaningful national gun control legislation depends on a Democratic majority in the House. The November election for the entire House will be our next chance to get the votes needed to do something to curb our plague of gun violence.
How that turns out may be very much influenced by a surprising new player: kids.
So many of the children who survived the Parkland killings are standing up to demand gun control. Their facility with social media and their political maturity in a democratic society means that they can mobilize public support for reform and that as they become adults they will have the political power to turn back our “Guns R Us” culture.
That can’t come a moment too soon. 30