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The Right to Life versus The Right to Bear Arms

Valentines Day had been a day of love and happiness for 14-year-old Eden Hebron—until a little after two in the afternoon when she heard gunshots in her school building. She recounts the day that it happened in an article posted online.

“Moments later, as I heard screams, fear took over my mind and Alyssa’s worried face took over my eyes. Twenty seconds between life and death and for now, only 2 feet away from Alyssa. More gunshots, I hear. And they get closer and closer. Until that loud sound I heard was coming from the door of my classroom. The glass of our door breaks. It shatters. Along with my innocence and safety.

Every gunshot I heard was the sound of my brain going deeper and deeper into a shock. My body was there, under a table, fearing for my life. But my mind was still in my desk, next to the door, laughing with Alyssa. I look at my friend. And within seconds, Alyssa is struck with bullets. She is dying. My friend, who I was talking with two minutes before, is dying.”

Students being evacuated in Florida

Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School being evacuated after a shooter killed 17 students

On 14 February 2018, Eden, along with about nine hundred other students, found herself hiding inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, had just entered the school carrying a .223-caliber AR-15 rifle and, having activated a fire alarm, started firing at people as they, under the impression of a fire drill, tried to exit the building. Cruz, an orphan, was known to be battling mental illness and depression, keeping a semiautomatic rifle in a lockbox in his room, and posting photos of himself posing with guns and knives to Instagram. His recently deceased adoptive mother had to often call the police in the past to help control his violent outbursts. As a defence attorney had once described him, Cruz was “a broken child”. He had been expelled from the school for unspecified disciplinary reasons not too long ago. However, Cruz, under American Federal Law, had been able to procure the AR-15, an assault rifle, legally.

Nikolas Cruz

Nikolas Cruz in Custody

With seventeen people dead and seventeen others wounded, this was one of the deadliest school shooting in the last few years. While the country lay in shock at the magnitude of this tragedy, students across the country united. They demanded stricter anti-firearm laws with the #NeverAgain movement. What started as a group of Douglas high schoolers getting together in protest of the brutal death of their friends, soon swelled beyond anything they could have foreseen. In less than six weeks, an unprecedented number of about a million individuals attended the ‘March of Our Lives’ at Washington DC, with more attending over 800 other sister events taking place in major cities all over the nation and making it the largest single-day protest in the United States.

“I was in a closet, locked for four hours, with people who I would consider almost family, crying and weeping on me, begging for their lives. I understand what it’s like to text my parents, ‘Goodbye, I might never ever get to see you again, I love you.’ I understand what it’s like to fear for your life, and I don’t think we should ever be discredited because of that. I don’t think we should ever be silenced because we are just children.”

— Alfonso Calderon, February 22, 2018

Some of the most impassioned speakers of the rally at Washington were the student survivors who had endured the ordeal first-hand. Most questioned how gun legislation in the United States could permit Cruz, who had previously shown clear signs of mental illness, to legally purchase and carry a military-style firearm like the AR-15. As Douglas senior Emma Gonzalez strikingly said “Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see,”. However, members of the right-wing media stated that they were in fact crisis actors, and members of the White House displayed tacit agreement through social media. Donald Trump went so far as to blame Cruz’s neighbours and classmates on Twitter, stating that the tragedy could have been averted had they alerted the authorities of his mental disturbances.

Emma at Rally

Emma Gonzales at the Rally at Washington.

The American public has long since supported gun legislative reforms. Though varying greatly along party lines, a majority of the voting populace, about 90% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans, as well as about 54% of the American gun owning public, support legislation limiting the availability of firearms. One point of great consensus with near universal support (99%) is the making of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) checks mandatory, which buyers at gun shows are currently exempt from. Support is seen towards raising the national age limit for owning guns from 18 to 21. Furthermore, two-thirds of  American people support a complete ban on assault weapons. The last few years have seen a particular rise in support as the number of mass shootings in the US keeps rising. While before 2011 mass shootings happened roughly six months apart, they now occur every two months. In fact, one particular report showed that in 2018, more people had died due to school shootings than in military service.

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Support for Stricter Gun Control among Democrats and Republicans. Chart Courtesy Gallup News.

Government officials, however, has consistently been wary of any form of gun reform legislation, and though a bill is often introduced in Congress due to popular public support, it finds stiff resistance and eventually fails being passed as law. Most Republican members of Congress moreover have often gone on record, passionately defending the American right to bear arms citing the lack of irrefutable proof that gun law reforms can prevent mass shootings. While they are always quick to tweet out their condolences after every major mass shooting, they quickly refute this as an opportune time to dig in on the underlying causes. Most claim that the weapon is not to blame, blaming the perpetrator instead. It is, as they say, the same reason we can’t ban the masses from owning cars. Another argument is that gun legislation is ineffective in decreasing the availability of a firearm to dangerous individuals. The only way to combat such a threat is to arm the general public, so they are able to protect themselves as well as the community.

Chart

Chart showing the number of homicides by Firearms by Country. Chart Courtesy Vox Media.

As more research is done on the effects of firearm legislation, however, most studies show a strong correlation between the availability of guns and gun violence. One such study, which compared the number of homicides by firearms in countries with the highest Human Development Index, found the US with one of the highest at 29.7 per million while the next closest country, Switzerland only had 7.7 per million. In 2016, a group of researchers from all over the US reviewed over 130 studies pertaining to gun control from ten different countries, making it the most extensive research on the issue so far. Their findings stated, “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.”

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Chart Depicting Gun Ownership and Gun Deaths across developed nations. Chart Courtesy Vox Media.

With the Trump Administration, the Republicans, who now also hold a majority in Congress, have been relaxing firearm regulations in the country to an unprecedented extent. An Obama era rule prohibiting people receiving Social Security checks for mental illness from purchasing guns was promptly repealed on the grounds of it infringing on the ‘second amendment’. Trump’s Justice Department also purged records of about 500,000 people previously labelled “fugitives” and prohibited from buying guns. Three months before the Parkland shooting, on December 6, the House of Representatives passed legislation loosening gun regulations and allowing those with permits to carry concealed weapons and legally travel with those firearms to other states.

“We can’t just blame Nikolas Cruz for this tragedy, because the laws of our country allowed him to purchase a weapon. Nikolas Cruz was able to purchase an assault rifle before he was able to drink beer. Nikola Cruz was able to purchase an assault rifle, although he had clear signs of mental illness. He was able to purchase an assault rifle with clear signs of delinquency from the school. Nikola Cruz was able to purchase an assault rifle with the intention to kill.”

— Stonemason Douglas junior Lorenzo Prado

With the massive support it received, the Parkland massacre was speculated to be the turning point in the American gun reform discourse. The teenage survivors had commanded the national stage like never before, and change was seen as imminent. A gun control bill was passed in Florida, banning ‘Bump Stocks’, raising the minimum age of ownership to 21 and creating a waiting period of 3 days for prospective buyers while background checks were performed. In Illinois, court judges were given the power to temporarily suspend gun rights of anyone accused of showing violent behaviour. Bills were introduced in Congress tightening gun reforms. However, the Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were successfully able to hold of what was perhaps the most unanimous call for gun control in American history. This raises the question of why there aren’t any gun control measures successfully taken by the state when such a major part of the American Voting Public support them,

This is where America’s largest gun advocacy group, the National Rifle Association come into play. With a budget of roughly 250 million dollars per year and self-claimed though disputed number of five million members, the NRA is touted as being one of the most powerful special interest lobby groups in the United States. Furthermore, they also receive extensive, undisclosed funding from all the major US gun companies like ‘Colt’ and ‘Smith and Wilson’. This gives them a substantial lobbying budget of three million dollars per year, which used in contributions to lawmakers, give them a considerable ability to influence senators and congress members on gun policy. Additional sums are also spent via political action committees and independent expenditures, which are much more difficult to track. The NRA also possesses a substantial extent of indirect influence through highly motivated, politically engaged members, who often vote purely based on the issue of gun rights. This can be a particularly effective tool in states like Utah and Wyoming where gun owners are more in number.

Top Republican congressmen like the aforementioned Mitch McConnell, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio got $9,900 each from the NRA in campaign spending for the 2016 election cycle, making it their primary source of funding and votes and an indispensable political ally. This hence makes their support for the NRA unequivocal. Even President Trump, who had previously indicated some form of gun reform policy after the Florida massacre, soon realigned with the NRA. This is however not as questionable considering that in the last Presidential election, Donald Trump received $11,438,118 in campaign financing and support from the NRA, whereas $19,756,346 was spent by the organisation against Hillary Clinton.

The NRA backing Trumps Candidacy for Presidency at the NRA Leadership Convention

The NRA has mastered controlling the narrative surrounding gun violence, and this is most evidently observed when responding to a mass shooting. Immediately after the Parkland shooting their Twitter account was inactive for several days. This now-familiar pattern is made to ensure that they aren’t held responsible or considered indelicate or defensive towards gun violence. When they do re-emerge, they retweet stories featuring positive gun use and articles debunking effective gun control. Their supporters in Congress are next to respond, tweeting out messages of condolence while reaffirming inaccurate claims and stating that gun laws wouldn’t have prevented the incident. They then take to social media and do TV interviews where they blame other causes. This was seen during the Parkland massacre as well with NRA commentators blaming the incident on the lack of armed teachers and personnel as well as defensive fortification at schools as a preventive measure. Lastly, they mobilise their members telling them that gun legislation might be passed and urging them to fight for their right. One of the most successful displays of their strategy was seen in Santa Fe, Texas. The response to the death of ten people at the Santa Fe School shooting was much more muted, with most Texans parent’s reaction, a call for teachers to be armed. This isn’t as surprising as Texas with a strong firearm presence is an NRA stronghold. Even survivors of the incident wouldn’t blame gun laws, instead stating that violent video games were to be blamed for the incident.

While gun lobbyists like the NRA are instrumental in a capitalist society like the United States, they use their considerable political and financial power to dictate the course of legislation regarding guns in the country. Though they claim to be one of the biggest and most powerful civil rights organisations in the world fighting for America’s first freedom, their members make up only 1.5% of the American people and only 20% of the gun owning populace. Furthermore, receiving funding primarily from the entire US gun manufacturing industry makes their claim as a civil rights organisation, promoting educated discourse on gun regulation more a statement than reality. This can be seen in their support for controversial policies including the Dickey Amendment, for which the NRA had lobbied extensively and successfully passed. The amendment banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from advocating or promoting Gun Control in any capacity. Furthermore, while the law didn’t forbid research on gun violence explicitly, it lowered the CDC’s budget 2.6 million dollars, the exact amount it spent on gun-related research and effectively stopped any research into gun-related deaths. This clearly shows the NRA’s tactic of not only trying to block Gun Control Legislation but to block all information pertaining to gun violence completely, in effect stifling any educated discussion on the dangers posed by guns.