Sure, James Holmes was able to purchase a powerful AR-15 rifle and amass several thousand rounds of ammunition, which he allegedly used to kill 12 people and wound dozens more in a movie theatre in Colorado. But that is no reason to reconsider America’s uniquely lax gun laws, according to John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of the state. If the killer had been denied easy access to firearms, Mr Hickenlooper said last weekend, “he would have found something else, some sort of poisonous gas”. Barack Obama did not exactly disagree. Fresh from a visit to Colorado, the campaigning president told an audience in New Orleans that the response to the mass murder should be in the context of “existing law” and should “protect the second amendment rights of the American people”.
The silence of US politicians about guns contrasts sharply with the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton signed a 10-year ban on assault weapons. The problem, as most people explain it, is that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun lobby. The Washington Post blames “the political firepower wielded by the National Rifle Association”. Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory accuses Democrats of “joining the rest of the Congress in collective cowering” before the NRA. But that is wrong. It is dodging an uncomfortable conclusion. It is casting a problem of democracy as a problem of corruption. Twenty years ago, a case could be made that the NRA was an electoral Svengali. No longer. The reason the US does not have sensible gun laws is that its voters do not want them.
The second amendment to the US Constitution reads: “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.” Its meaning has been much fought over. The verb “keep” implies an individual right. That opening clause about militias gives scope for regulation, or used to. In two recent cases – District of Columbia v Heller (2008) and McDonald v Chicago (2010) – the Supreme Court has raised high hurdles against gun control. But public will is as big an obstacle as judicial fickleness. According to Gallup, 47 per cent of Americans have guns in their homes.
The old rule in American politics was that Democratic-leaning majorities favoured regulating guns, but Republican-leaning opponents of regulation were more passionate. Democrats were slow to discover that, even with poll numbers on their side, banging on about gun control was a good way to lose the swing districts in the country. Their best recent years, 2006 and 2008, came after the party made a strategic decision to stifle candidates’ anti-gun rhetoric.
In the past two years, it has ceased to be true that a majority of Americans favour tougher gun laws. The Pew Research Center reported this spring that a plurality (49 per cent) want more gun rights. The rise has been particularly marked among independent voters. More than half (55 per cent) want more gun rights; only a third (33 per cent) said this in 2007.
While these changes appear sudden, they may be embedded in a longer-term evolution. Gallup announced last autumn that only 26 per cent of Americans wanted to see handguns banned, down from 60 per cent in 1959. What explains the shift? It may be that an old culture of government regulation is being supplanted, in gun control as in certain other things. Perhaps the new tolerance for guns is part of a general spirit of libertarianism that is also evidenced in the movements for gay marriage and medical marijuana.
But that would not explain why, in the days after the cinema shootings, there was a significant rise in background checks for new gun purchases in Colorado. Some have cast this public gun-buying spree as natural reaction of self-defence: if someone opens fire in a dark movie theatre, a fellow wants to be prepared! The explanation is dubious. The US is a much safer place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Its homicide rate (4.9 per 100,000 people), while high by developed-world standards, has fallen by half in the past couple of decades. While one often sees the figure of 30,000 gun deaths thrown around, the majority of those are suicides. The actual figure of murders by firearm is 8,775 – far off historic highs. Nor is it the case that Americans are blowing the threat out of proportion. Gallup noted last autumn that its data “show no major shifts in the trends in Americans’ perceptions of crime, fear of crime, or reports of being victimised by crime”.
Perhaps it results from a bleaker view – the belief that if you want a gun, you had better get one now, for Congress may soon crack down on them. From what we can tell of the present-day political landscape, that worry looks misplaced.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
Get alerts on US when a new story is published