Grim body count unlikely to be enough for Republicans to act on gun reform
Analysis: Joe Biden called for action in a televised address after the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo but power of the gun lobby and political calculation are likely to prevail
Joe Biden repeated that word 11 times during a televised address to the American people on Thursday night as he lamented how schools and other public places in the US have been turned into “killing fields” by gun violence.
“After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, nothing has been done,” the US president said against a backdrop of 56 candles representing gun violence in all 50 states and six territories. “This time, that can’t be true. This time, we must actually do something.”
But just before Biden’s impassioned speech there were reminders of exactly how hard that will be.
During a congressional hearing on gun safety, Republican Greg Steube of Florida, taking part remotely, brandished various pistols and declared: “I’m in my house, I can do whatever I want with my guns.” In Iowa, a man shot dead two women outside a church before apparently killing himself.
America’s political checks and balances ensure that presidents are far from omnipotent. Biden, like fellow Democrat Barack Obama before him, has run into a wall of obstruction from Republicans in Congress. It is a wall that can feel almost impossible to breach with meaningful new laws. It is not a big mystery why.
In the decade since the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has spent more than $100m to help elect Republicans who support its agenda. That included $30m to help Donald Trump get elected president in 2016.
Gun culture in America – though often baffling to much of the rest of the world – has become entrenched as an identity symbol for conservatives and the Trump base. Four in 10 Americans live in a household with a gun, while 30% say they personally own one, according to a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center.
No Republican has ever been punished for promoting firearms too hard in primary elections, which tend to reward he or she who shouts loudest. In a hyper-partisan era, there is little political incentive for them to strike a deal with Biden.
But after last month’s fatal shooting of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and data showing that guns are now the number one killer of children in the US, some Democrats and grassroots activists have expressed hope that this time will be different.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator for Connecticut, scene of the Sandy Hook shooting, has vowed not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, pointing to a new willingness among at least some Republicans to talk and compromise.
If that is true – and it is a big if – there is little chance that the evenly divided Senate will meet the specific demands that Biden made on Thursday night. These included a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that allow a gun to fire dozens of rounds in seconds. The president also pushed for stronger background checks on gun buyers and a repeal of legal immunity for gun manufacturers, drawing comparison with the tobacco industry.
The House of Representatives, where Democrats have a slender majority, has already passed some measures such as expanding background checks, which have broad public support in opinion polls. But these are likely to stall in the evenly divided Senate, where Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to join them to override a procedure known as the filibuster.
The hostile reaction to Biden’s intervention gave an insight into how unlikely that is. The NRA said his proposals would infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. “This isn’t a real solution, it isn’t true leadership, and it isn’t what America needs,” it argued.
The Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway, editor-in-chief of the Federalist online magazine, described the remarks as an “impeachable offence”, adding: “‘Do something’ is not a serious policy.” Some Republicans have instead argued for arming teachers and fortifying schools.
The proposed assault weapons ban is an example of how reform is becoming harder, not easier. As Biden noted, there was such a law in 1994, passed with bipartisan support in Congress and endorsed by law enforcement organisations. But Republicans allowed it to expire a decade later during the presidency of George W Bush. Since the weapons went back on sale, Biden said, mass shootings have tripled.
The US has a higher rate of gun deaths than any other wealthy nation. Since Uvalde, there have been more than 20 other mass shootings. Even Biden’s plan is relatively modest and would only tinker around the edges. Don’t expect Republican senators, beholden to the gun lobby and with an eye on midterm elections, to accept his plea that enough is enough.