Slain five-year-olds, lethal movie premiers, massacred students: American citizens have become numb to these tragedies as they experience the routine consequences of nearly nonexistent gun control. Each tremor of terror sent through the country with a gunshot (or 20) receives the same desperate response, “Something needs to change.” And yet, there is none. The stark inaction after the loss of countless lives is shocking. While lobbying by the National Rifle Association has received much of the blame for the complete lack of progress in gun control, the issue may stem more from a large tangle of partisan politics that makes legislation impossible, especially as the Republican Party continues to disregard empirical evidence of the danger of gun rights.
Guns have killed more Americans since 1968 than have all wars in American history. The shooting just this month at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was simply the newest development in a long history of gun violence within the United States. As has become customary, politicians from every corner of the country — especially those seeking the presidential office — released comments on the deaths of ten college students at the hands of a gunman. Democrats reliably pressed for immediate reform of gun control laws. President Obama expressed utter frustration at his nation for its inability to enact legislation that could prevent tragedies such as this. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley followed suit, stressing the necessity of controlling American citizens’ access to firearms.
Reactions from Republican presidential hopefuls consisted of the entirely opposite idea. Jeb Bush responded to the shooting with the phrase, “Stuff happens.” Of course, Bush did not deny the tragedy of such an event. But, he urged against creating laws over a “unique event.” He continued to draw an analogy to a child drowning in a swimming pool: There may be an urge to pass legislation requiring barriers around kiddie pools, but this would ultimately cause more of a burden than safety.
Bush is not alone in his sentiments, as other candidates have deemed these sorts of attack inevitable. Donald Trump declared that deadly violence was bound to happen. He then pointed out the difficulty of placing “somebody in an institution for the rest of their lives based on the fact that he looks like he could be a problem.” Marco Rubio agreed that the real issue at hand was mental illness, boldly stating that “gun control would not have prevented that attack.” Their statements are representative of the general complacency of the GOP with regards to gun violence. Gun deaths are seen as beyond the control of legislation and out of the purview of the government, the very institution responsible for protecting citizens.
Other GOP candidates have twisted the story into evidence of a need for more guns and fewer firearm restrictions. Ben Carson advocates for the arming of teachers to prevent student shooters in the future. He stayed rigid in his stance on gun rights, claiming that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” Mike Huckabee echoed Carson’s views, harping on the fact that a police officer ultimately stopped the shooter with a gun. He went on to deny a gun violence problem, claiming instead a problem with “uncivilized savages.” These views rely on the sanctity of the Second Amendment, which has stirred much controversy as to whether it guarantees the right to bear arms to individuals or specifically to regulated state militias. They also propagate the idea of a brave, gun-wielding citizen who will protect fellow Americans from shooters.
Though disturbing, this type of response to gun tragedies is not new. After the 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in Newtown, President Obama made a similar push for stricter gun control, which received support from many prominent politicians including then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mike Huckabee once again dismissed the need for legislation, blaming the massacre on a lack of God in schools. Multiple GOP senators invoked the usual “this stuff happens” excuse, while Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas claimed the need for more guns to prevent future violence. Speaker of the House John Boehner showed similar resistance to stricter firearm legislation after a shooting at a midnight premiere of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. On the other hand, multiple Democratic senators who had previously supported gun rights decided to reverse their positions after such gruesome events.
Republicans seem to use these three distinct illogical arguments against stricter gun control when presented with evidence of its necessity.
Republicans seem to use these three distinct illogical arguments against stricter gun control when presented with evidence of its necessity. The first is the swimming pool comparison: the fact that deaths do not mean burdensome laws are worthwhile. The analogy is incongruous, as drowning in swimming pools leads to 390 child deaths a year while guns lead to a whopping 2,677. This means nearly seven times as many child fatalities result from guns as swimming pools before even considering 29,837 additional adult deaths. In this case, the burden of gun control is clearly outweighed by the compelling interest to protect our citizens.
The second argument claims that tragedies will happen regardless of gun control laws. Yet, this statement completely disregards data regarding foreign countries with stricter firearm policies. This is not a global problem, as data shows that it is unique to the United States. Children in other similarly developed countries are 14 times less likely to die from a gun than American children. The United States experiences more than five times as many gun deaths as Canada and 42 times as many as the United Kingdom, both of which have tight gun control laws. For the Republican argument to stand, one would have to assume that the United States simply has a larger concentration of “evil” people, a clearly preposterous statement. Former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer has gone as far as to warn Australians to “think twice” before visiting the United States because of “illogical” and dangerous gun policies. After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia passed strict gun control laws and has not seen a similar act of violence since.
The last of these fallacious claims is the most dangerous, since it appears rational to the general public and plays on human emotions: the story of the “good guy with the gun.” In this GOP fairytale, lax gun policies allow the heroes of the world access to guns, which they then use to defend the innocent from madmen (who are also allowed to own firearms). Unfortunately, history has proven many times that this is simply not the case. In fact, Umpqua, the site of the most recent college shooting, actually allowed students to carry guns on campus. Furthermore, there were multiple armed students on the day of the massacre that chose not to get involved for their own safety. A supporting study done in Arizona, a state with high gun ownership, showed that defensive gun usage fell far below expectations at only three occasions in 100 days.
This myth has gained widespread acceptance. The thought of protecting oneself with a deadly weapon is appealing. Few things are desired more than absolute safety. This is clear in movements to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. It has also rung true for residents of Roseburg, the town of Umpqua Community College. Many community members have responded to the panic by seeking their own guns for the purpose of self-defense. These frightened citizens fail to realize that the same mechanisms protecting their right to self-defense protects the right of others to attack.
Clearly, no progress can be made without the GOP budging. Republicans’ fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of gun violence and disregard of empirical data has created an immovable road block on the path to a safer country. Still, it is unfair to characterize Republicans as illogical. The problem lies in the pattern of reinforcement of these ill-conceived notions. Unfortunately, there is little proof to convince them otherwise. Congress has blocked major funding legislation that would allow the Centers for Disease Control to make a full investigation into the science behind gun violence and control. The one study that was done was unable to reach any useful conclusions.
In addition, being a Republican has become equated with supporting gun rights. Since 2000, liberals have seen a slight increase of 2 percent (from 26 to 28) in support of gun rights. On the other hand, conservative support has jumped a whopping 20 percent (from 44 to 64). What started out as a marked but manageable difference in opinion has turned into an entirely partisan debate. This encourages conservatives to take a side on an issue without fully considering it first. Even Democrats who strike down gun control legislation in Congress seem to be doing so primarily to secure re-election in Republican states. This huge increase in support of guns may be influenced by the popular misperception that crime rates are rising in the United States and the resulting desire for a defensive weapon.
With such a large rift between parties, legislation is nearly impossible. This has been evident over the last few years, as most gun laws have actually made firearms easier to acquire. No substantive, non-expiring gun control law has made it through Congress since the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. Multiple renewals of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban have also failed as recently as 2008. If the country wants to see a positive change in the safety of its people, the GOP will need to reconsider its views and begin working with Democrats rather than against them.