Why is it so difficult to legislate firearms in the United States?


Carrying a weapon is a fundamental freedom

Lauric Henneton

Lecturer at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (Source: Lauric Henneton)

Democrats don’t have enough votes in the Senate to pass laws. They now only have a simple majority when they would need a qualified majority of 60 out of 100, and therefore also the votes of Republican senators. However, what they are proposing to frame arms sales is coming up against a total and systematic blockage from the Republicans. There is no middle ground, and that is the main problem for any federal legislation. There have been unsuccessful attempts, such as in 2013, when conservative Democratic Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin co-sponsored bipartisan legislation, along with his neighbor Senator from Pennsylvania Pat Toomey. American public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of regulations, particularly in the background check – psychiatric and criminal background checks on potential buyers – but an even more polarized Congress is unlikely to pass federal legislation on the matter.

In Texas, the shooter had just turned 18 and had, a priori, no history. Even more drastic procedures for examining his profile would have yielded nothing: the Republicans argue that, in this kind of case, it would have been useless. Statistics show, however, that the more guns in circulation in a state, the more gun violence increases. The Republican Party also echoes the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby that this is a mental health issue and that honest people should not be denied the right to defend themselves. Basically, the Republicans are afraid that the Democrats will come and take their weapons from the good fathers who pay their taxes and want to be able to defend their loved ones if they are threatened by a “bad guy” who will always find a way to obtain a weapon, legally or illegally, whatever the legislation.

The NRA, in financial difficulty, has lost its ability to influence the financing of electoral campaigns, but the discourse remains well anchored, reinforced by an interpretation of the second amendment of the Constitution confirmed by the Supreme Court. At the time of the War of Independence, in the absence of police and armed forces, citizens had to be able to be armed to ensure the maintenance of the minimum order in a civilized society. The idea persists that Americans must be armed to defend themselves against any enemy and, ultimately, against their own government. For some Republican voters and candidates, it’s a basic freedom. Republicans are now saying teachers should be armed so they can stand up to an assault.

Collected by François d’Alançon

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Why is it so difficult to legislate firearms in the United States?

There is no general law applying to the whole territory

Jean-Eric Branaa

Lecturer at Paris 2-Assas University (Source: Jean-Éric Branaa)

The United States was built on an ideal of revolution and freedom, thanks to a struggle against the English oppressors. The first political regime set up in this country, that of confederation, did not work, giving way to a federation of states based on a series of compromises. At that time, a Charter of Rights was adopted, which guarantees a set of freedoms, including the right to bear arms allowing, if necessary, to rebel against an authority encroaching on individual freedoms. This right was formalized in the Second Amendment, which is almost impossible to change.

To do this, it would indeed require a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. And once this obstacle has been overcome, this modification should be ratified by three quarters of the States within the next ten years. From a technical point of view, it is mission impossible. This is what happened for a proposed amendment, dating from 1973, stipulating equality between men and women: it was adopted by Congress, but not by three quarters of the States.

Added to this technical problem is a more political, even ideological problem. Republicans consider that the federal state does not have to legislate on a question of fundamental freedom. It is up to the states. In fact, each state has already adopted its own rules on the right to carry a weapon visibly or not, in a particular public place. But there is no general law applying to the whole territory. Guns are part of American mythology, a country that has been built on violence throughout history.

Each carnage provokes real emotion, but it invariably subsides after a few days. The argument developed by the Republicans remains widely shared within American opinion: it is not the weapons that are dangerous, but the use that we make of them. In this very religious country, the vision of a fight between good and evil is very present, as is the fear and lack of confidence in a very reactive police force. To get out of it, a Republican leader would have to manage to reassure his fellow citizens enough to move the lines.

However, in the current context where the Republican Party sees its electoral base shrinking, due to demographic changes in the United States, it is rather the opposite that is happening: the Republicans tend to radicalize and add to the need to defend this second amendment. And let’s not forget that the Supreme Court leans very clearly on the side of the conservatives. Result: the most powerful man on the planet, the President of the United States, is unable to pass a law to end these massacres.

Collected by Thomas Hofnung

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