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SITUATION UPDATE 14 June, 2022 Back

Situation Update - Gun legislation debate revisited following US shootings

Henry Newcombe

US gun laws

Summary

  • The US has again become embroiled in a recurring national debate on the need for federal reforms on guns in the wake of multiple high-profile mass shootings.
  • Over the past three consecutive weekends the Gun Violence Archive has recorded multiple mass shootings across the country, which a senior member of the senate has described as a “gun violence epidemic”.
  • On 11 June, over 450 rallies occurred across the US as part of the March for Our Lives movement which aims to press the federal government to bring about meaningful gun reform for the first time since 1994.
  • The US is alleged to currently be on course to match the 692 mass shootings which were reported in 2021, with 297 having been recorded since the start of 2022, including 27 school shootings.
  • On 12 June, a bipartisan deal was announced in principle which could enact a “red-flag provision”, making it easier to confiscate guns from individuals deemed dangerous, and heightened background checks for under 21s.
  • Further protests on the debate may occur from both sides of the political aisle. Concerns remain that the debate could be infiltrated by extremist groups looking to purport their own political objectives.

Situation

Following multiple high-profile mass shootings across the United States (US) in recent months, the country has again become embroiled in a national debate on the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. The debate was most vehemently reignited in late-May after nineteen students, and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on 25 May.

Investigators state that the gunman, identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, entered the school with a handgun, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, alongside high-capacity magazines, and barred himself into two adjoining rooms for more than an hour before law enforcement charged the room and shot the assailant dead. It remains unclear as to why Ramos targeted the school, but the ease in which he was able to purchase the weapons utilised has sparked nationwide anger. Speaking following the shooting, State Senator John Whitmire, citing law enforcement, outlined that Ramos legally purchased two AR-style rifles at a local federal firearms licence on 17 and 20 May, with 375 rounds of ammunition purchased on 18 May. Moreover, the purchases were made on the assailant’s 18th birthday, with reports suggesting it’s the first thing he did when he turned 18.

The shooting in Uvalde marked the second high-profile mass shooting in just ten days, after ten people were killed in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York State, on 14 May. In this instance, an 18-year-old, identified as Payton Gendron, was arrested at the scene following a stand-off with law enforcement. Gendron has been described as a white supremacist, with authorities deeming the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism that specifically targeted a predominantly black neighbourhood. The assailant is reported to have shouted racial slurs whilst conducting the attack, with investigators finding that he had also posted a manifesto online which included racist language and ideology. As with Ramos, Gendron legally purchased the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle from a gun store in Endicott, New York State, having passed a background check in the process.

Other notable incidents which have renewed awareness to the matter of gun ownership and gun violence in recent months include a shooting at a church in Orange County, California, on 16 May. The gunman, identified as Chinese immigrant David Chou, opened fire at a lunch banquet at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church, killing one person and injuring four others, in an incident believed to be motivated by the assailant’s political views on Taiwan. Whilst on 10 June, a gunman, identified as Joe Louis Esquivel, opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol on his co-workers at a manufacturing facility in Smithsburg, Maryland, leaving three dead and a fourth person injured.

Shootings in the US are common, though many do not make national media coverage. This was exemplified on the weekend of 10-12 June, which the Gun Violence Archive reported as the third consecutive weekend during which multiple mass shootings took place in the US. Mass shootings are defined as a single incident involving four or more victims. On Memorial Day weekend (27-29 May), 17 mass shootings were recorded across the US, leaving 13 dead and 79 injured. The following weekend (3-5 June), 11 mass shootings were recorded, leaving 17 dead and 62 injured. Finally, across 10-12 June, ten mass shootings left ten people dead and a further 42 injured in what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has described as “the gun violence epidemic”.

In response, renewed political momentum has been utilised in an effort to pass wide-ranging reforms to bring about gun control legislation. The most comprehensive attempt to do this emerged from the House of Representatives on 9 June when it passed, by 223 to 204 votes, the “Protecting Our Kids Act”. The legislation includes a series of bills aimed at preventing gun violence including raising the legal age to buy certain semiautomatic firearms from 18 to 21 years old, establishing new offences for gun trafficking and for selling large-capacity magazines, and allowing local governments to compensate individuals who surrender weapons to a buyback program. However, the bill is not expected to pass through the Senate. Most Republicans, many supported financially by gun lobbies, remain opposed to gun reform stating that it undermines the constitution.

As part of this effort to bring about effective reform, on 11 June, thousands of people rallied across the country as part of the “March for Our Lives” movement. More than 450 rallies were scheduled nationwide with the largest being held on the National Mall in Washington DC. Whilst there has been an array of ideas on what legislation needs to be enacted to bring about genuine gun reform, the March for Our Lives organisation has called for a ban on assault weapons, a universal background check for those buying guns, and a national licensing system to register all gun owners. In his message to those rallying across the country, President Joe Biden said to “keep marching” being in support of bringing about legislation to address gun violence, which has not been seen in the US since 1994 following an assault rifle ban, consequently allowed to expire by Congress ten years later.

However, on 12 June, a bipartisan group of US senators, which includes enough Republicans to overcome the chamber’s ability to filibuster, announced that they had come to an agreement on a framework for potential gun safety legislation. Details on the wording of the bill are yet to be announced. Nevertheless, it is reported that the agreement would make juvenile records of gun buyers under the age of 21 available for background checks and make it easier to temporarily confiscate guns from people considered potentially dangerous by enacting a so-called “red-flag provision”, as well as bolster school safety and mental health programs amongst other changes. In a statement, Biden stated that the plan “does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades”.

Analysis and Implications

Renewed discussions on the prospect of new legislation to control guns is nothing new. National debate often emerges in the wake of a high-profile mass shooting, before being discussed for a period and subsequently shelved as other domestic or political developments take centre stage. However, news of a bipartisan approach to legislation does bring about renewed hope for those pushing for gun control. In part, this may be a result of a marked rise in incidents in recent years. This year alone, the Gun Violence Archive has recorded 267 mass shootings across the US, already putting the country on course to reaching the 692 mass shootings recorded within 2021. Moreover, the number of mass shootings have continued to rise year on year, with a notable rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic having risen from 417 in 2019 to 611 in 2020.

On top of this, FBI statistics released in May highlight that 2021 saw the US experience the highest tally of “active shooter” incidents in over 20 years, which left 103 people killed and 140 injured. An active shooter is defined as someone who engages in killing or attempting to kill people in a public space in a seemingly random fashion. The report also showed that all but one of the perpetrators of active shooting incidents were male, aged between 12 and 67, with commercial businesses accounting for over half of active shooter incidents. The geographical spread of the attacks was also 52% higher in 2021, when compared to 2020, occurring in 30 different states. Gun rights proponents argue that these statistics do not indicate a casual relationship with gun violence, but the US does continue to rank first in firearms per capita and has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate of the world’s most-developed nations. A significant driver in the gun legislation debate also remains the victims of these attacks. Uvalde marked the 27th school shooting in 2022 alone. Moreover, since 2020, gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children and young adults within the US.

The country remains deeply divided on debates surrounding the Second Amendment and gun control with Democrats overwhelmingly in favour of bringing about restrictions, whilst most Republicans cite the importance of protecting the US Constitution. In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, some Republicans began accusing the Democrats of using the latest school shooting to further their own political objectives. The following day, former Vice President Mike Pence exemplified this when he stated that “not unsurprisingly, President Biden and the Democrats have already sought to politicise this national tragedy…[with] predictable calls for gun control”. The sentiment is widely supported within the Republican party, most significantly by Republican senators who represent rural, pro-gun voters.

Whilst neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a majority within the Senate, directly reflecting the divided nature of the US, meaningful gun reform will likely continue to be undermined by Republican filibustering. Senate rules mandate that whichever party is out of power has the ability through filibusters to halt all legislation the party in power would like to pass unless the minority party also agrees. The only way this can be overcome is if a bill ascertains the support of at least 60 senators, meaning in the current Senate, ten Republicans would need to back legislation put forth by the Democrats. As a result, bipartisan approaches to governance are essential.

The bipartisan deal announced on 12 June therefore does offer the potential to bring about meaningful reform for the first time since 1994. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, stated that if passed it would mark a “good first step” which would “limit the ability of potential mass shooters to quickly obtain assault rifles by establishing an enhanced background check process for gun purchasers under age 21”. Moreover, US campaigners have welcomed the announcement with David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland School shooting in Florida and representative of the March for Our Lives movement, stating that “this is progress even if small”.

However, there are a number of obstacles which remain before the potential bill will be passed in the coming weeks or even months. For one, the final details and legislative language are yet to be articulated, which is likely to bring about fresh disputes and delays in the process of passing this bill. Furthermore, pro-gun lobbies such as the powerful National Rifle Association of America (NRA) have said they will respond when the full text is released, with the NRA stating it would ”continue to oppose any effort to insert gun control policies…[which] deprive law-abiding citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves”. As a result, lobbyists still have the potential to illicit change, including through the use of financial incentives, to persuade Republicans not to support the bipartisan motion, which could cause delays or ultimately stop it in its entirety.

Moreover, even if passed, the legislation still falls well below the change President Biden and the Democrats had hoped to enact with expanded background checks and a higher minimum age of purchase dismissed, whilst assault rifles remain legally available. In the past, gun reformists have been reluctant to support taking small steps in bringing about reform in the fear that it would let Republican lawmakers then argue that they have tried to bring about reform, without having to meaningfully address the problem. If passed, it remains to be seen if these concerns will become a reality.

Going forwards, there remains the potential for ongoing debates on gun reforms to bring about nationwide protests. These protests are most likely to occur from those pushing for further reforms on weapon legislation but also have the potential to emerge from groups attempting to protect their rights as part of the Second Amendment within the US Constitution. Clashes with security personnel have been noted in the past as a result of these rallies, having the potential to escalate into violence quickly. Another high-profile mass shooting within the US could invoke further large-scale demonstrations across the country, as was seen on 11 June, which may also bring about counter-protests. Furthermore, the national debate has the potential to be infiltrated and exacerbated by right-wing and left-wing groups looking to purport their political objectives through the movements. In the event of any unrest, transport and business disruptions should be anticipated, with an increase in security personnel likely.