Hunting and sport shooting have always been healthy pastimes in the U.S. Like our sister nations, Canada and Australia, we were founded in uncivilized lands where rifles were as important as axes and plows. After some 240 years of uncomplicated, sporting use of firearms by civilians, however, our nation is embroiled in a bitter and politicized struggle over civilian gun ownership. What has happened?
Today, reasons for owning firearms have multiplied beyond sporting use. In crime-ridden urban areas, burglary and personal assaults provide motivation for handgun ownership. And there are those who think there is a need for assault rifles for hunting and for a military-armed militia to protect against government tyranny.
About half of all American households possess a firearm. The “Small Arms Survey of 2007” found that Americans possessed 88.8 guns per 100 people, by far the highest among developed nations. In 2012 the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms estimated 131,806 gun dealers in the country, roughly four times the number of grocery stores. By contrast, Russia had 8.9, Iran 7.3, China 4.9 and Japan 0.6 guns per 100 people. Seven major European nations averaged 19.7 guns per 100 people.
Associated with exceptionally high gun ownership, the U.S. has an exceptionally high rate of gun violence and death. The Washington Post reported that the U.S had more homicides by gun (0.036 per 100,000 citizens) than Germany, France, Canada and Australia combined. And research associated with Mark Shields on the PBS News Hour and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is jolting: More Americans have died from civilian gunfire than have died in all of America’s wars since 1775, averaging 92 deaths a day since 1968.
Associated with an increase in gun ownership has been a change in public opinion. Polling by the Pew Research Center revealed in 1999 that hunting was the principle reason for owning guns. But fears for personal and residential safety have been awakened by increasing gun-related violence. By 2013 hunting had been replaced by protection as the principal reason for guns. A cycle is apparent: As gun ownership and violence increase, personal fear increases; as personal fear increases, gun ownership and violence increase.
Gun rights advocates claim that the Second Amendment allows citizens the right to buy and own almost any type of firearm. An article in the Atlantic magazine by Matt Valentine reviewed the nature of guns in the American market at an annual Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoors Trade show: cosmetic modifications of the military M-16 assault rifle, thermal imaging and laser sights, powerful long-range sniper rifles and armor-piercing ammunition. Such equipment in civilian ownership has created the need to train and arm expensive police units with comparable, military equipment.
Neglecting explosives, accidental and suicidal use, gun advocates argue that the more legal guns in American streets, the fewer the deaths and injuries caused by illegal use. To confirm this we might look at the experience of other nations to see the relationship between the number of civilian guns and the number of deaths by guns in the population.
Data reported by Mark Reid, a Research Fellow in machine learning at the Australian National University’s Research School Computer Science, spoke directly to this argument. Including data from many nations, he presented a graph showing that as gun-ownership increased, gun-caused deaths also increased: the exact opposite of what gun advocates claim. In his graph, the U.S. stood alone with by far the most guns and gun-related murders per capita. Other data support this finding.
Public polling has shown support for background checks on all gun buyers, databases to track gun sales and a ban on military-style assault weapons. A question posed by Pew Research in 2013 was revealing: “Should states be allowed to ignore federal gun laws?” In the summed opinion of all responders, a solid majority of 60 percent replied “no.” Broken down by gender, majorities of both men and women replied “no.” In terms of political orientation, however, a clear distinction became apparent: Republicans, mostly men, were the only sub-group, at 58 percent, who felt that states should be allowed to ignore federal gun laws. Freedom of gun ownership now may be incorporated into Republican policy.
The degree of this polarization was on display in 2004. Legislation was introduced in the Senate that would have continued a 1994 law banning the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. It failed 40-60 with almost all Republicans and a few Democrats voting “no.” The bill had public support: Polling by Gallup showed a majority in favor of such a ban in 2013 and Pew Research found the same in 2015.
In 2013 President Obama proposed a ban on certain types of semi-automatic assault rifles, limiting the size of ammunition magazines and expanding background checks. Introduced just after the Newtown school shooting, it failed. In expressing heartfelt frustration at this failure, President Obama noted that National Rifle Association spokesmen had incited fear of passage by deliberately and falsely proclaiming that a national gun registry would result. What is causing this Republican tolerance for lethal militarized weapons in the hands of civilians?
When Congress ignores public concern over issues like this, it suggests that we look at lobbying by gun advocates. The National Rifle Association is the most effective and deep-pocketed. A public statement from the CBS Washington news chief gave voice to a widely acknowledged fact: “(Members of) Congress are literally afraid to take on the National Rifle Association because they know that if they take a position that favors some limit on gun sales, the NRA is going to pour, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to defeat them.”
In 2012 the NRA employed 28 of the 42 lobbyists advocating unrestricted gun ownership. In the 2012 election, the NRA spent 3,000 times what the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence spent. Among new members of the 2012 Congress, over half had received campaign funding from the NRA. For legislators’ support of gun rights, the NRA and the firearms industry have poured nearly $81 million into congressional and presidential campaigns since 2000. From 2000 to 2010, pro-gun interests spent 28 times more than gun-control interests on House and Senate races.
Such statistics highlight the obvious: Congressional obligations engendered by campaign contributions on the gun issues are redeemed by favorable action (or inaction). Such corruption by special interests is a serious flaw in our privately funded election process.
So, it turns out that the NRA has added to its original agenda of lobbying Congress. Walter Hickey, on the Business Insider website, published information about the origins of the many millions of dollars the NRA pours into its expensive lobbing efforts on behalf of the firearm industry: mostly from advertising and direct contributions from gun manufacturers.
For some organizations and individuals advocating “freedom” of gun ownership, the Second Amendment has been used as an argument. It says “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.”
After our War of Independence, Congress enacted two Militia Acts of 1792 that defined a well-organized militia: state-supported, organized into regular military units, with a primary goal of suppressing internal insurrection and repelling invasion from outside.
In the War of 1812, state militias proved to be relatively ineffective. Congressional sentiment was recorded to the effect that militias lacked discipline and sufficient training of officers. In the Militia Act of 1903, Congress repealed the Militia Acts of 1792 and reorganized state militias into two categories: state militias (organized) and reserve militias (unorganized).
Since that 1903 Act, state militias have evolved into state National Guards, organized and equipped to modern standards and serving under trained officers. The unorganized reserves now consist of able-bodied men and women 17 to 45 years old, people from whom state or federal governments can draw if in need of additional military forces.
Today, among developed nations we are exceptional in the number and kinds of guns in civilian hands and in gun-related deaths. Because our congressional members need private money to gain office, well-funded special interests like the NRA have great power to manipulate congressional actions. Unfortunately, the election of members of our federal government is today as awash in private money as the country is awash in private money that supports “freedom” of gun ownership.
Robert Merriam, Ph.D., of Chapel Hill retired as a science professor from Stony Brook University in New York.