NO NEW laws restricting access to guns will be passed as a result of Wednesday’s racist shooting rampage, which left nine dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Americans can be confident this is true for several reasons. For starters, Barack Obama more or less admitted it.
Americans need to reckon with the fact that other advanced countries do not have to face this sort of mass violence, the president said in a sombre statement at the White House on Thursday. “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognising the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues just now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it,” he said, with visible frustration.
The president knows that if it were politically possible to pass new gun laws in Washington, it would have happened after the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. It is hard to imagine a tragedy more calculated to shock American consciences: 20 small children and six staff were gunned down in their elementary school in a quaint New England community by a disturbed young man, wielding a rifle from his mother’s gun collection. Various marginal tweaks to gun laws were tried and failed to gain traction in Congress. Finally, a bipartisan push was made to merely enforce existing laws better. This would have expanded the number of gun-buyers checked for histories of crime or severe mental illness. It failed, too.
It shows the standing ovation that followed a call for gun controls at a vigil on Thursday, during which two Republican leaders remained seated, hands in their laps: Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott. For them it was easier to suffer a moment’s embarrassment than face accusations from local Republicans that they are “gun grabbers”, unwilling to defend what conservatives believe is a near-absolute right to bear arms in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Americans can be confident that South Carolina is not about to pass new gun laws, either. For evidence, they can start by contemplating this photograph, tweeted out by a local reporter:
For further evidence, contemplate the lock-step reaction to the massacre on conservative talk-radio, cable TV and the internet. Because questions are being asked about why it was so easy for Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old suspected shooter, to get a handgun when he had alarmed his own friends with angry talk of starting a race war and was arrested for drug possession in February 2015, gun fans turned the tables. As so often before, they asserted that the problem was not the absence of laws controlling access to guns, but the opposite. They hastened to explain that South Carolina’s existing (and strikingly weak) gun controls and background checks had kept guns out of the hands of honest folk, such as pastors, who should have been armed to protect themselves.
Charles Cotton, a board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), went so far as toessentially blame Clementa Pinckney, the pastor killed at the historic black church on Wednesday, for the massacre. This is because Mr Pinckney, a Democratic member of the South Carolina state Senate, voted against a 2011 bill to legalise guns in churches. “Innocent people died as a result of his position on a political issue,” wrote Mr Cotton.
Others, such as Dana Loesch, a popular conservative talk radio host and gun advocate,argued that Mr Roof’s access to a gun, despite his drug arrest, simply illustrates the ineffectiveness of any law designed to control access to guns. “In order for laws to work, criminals must follow them,” she scoffed.
This is a remarkably cynical argument. The NRA and its allies have in fact worked tirelessly to limit the use of background checks in South Carolina and elsewhere. South Carolina is already what is known as a “shall issue” state, meaning that law-enforcement agencies must issue a concealed-carry gun permit to an applicant who passes a background check (states that are “may issue” give officials some discretion when granting such licences). Seeking to widen access further, this April the state House of Representatives voted for so-called “permitless carry”, under which citizens not legally barred from owning a gun are allowed to carry one without applying for a license. Permits are still needed for now, after the state senate decided to wait until next year to consider this bill.
Gun fans have also said, as they always do, that the root cause of gun massacres is mental illness, not guns. As it happens in 2013 Mr Pinckney introduced a bill in the state Senate that would have obliged firearms dealers to conduct background checks and interviews to establish the mental state of someone trying to buy an assault rifle. It went nowhere.
Finally, though Charleston’s long-time Democratic mayor, Joseph Riley, has supported gun control for many years, and said after the shooting that it is “far too easy” to gain access to a deadly weapon, Americans may be confident that no municipal ordinances will be passed in his state.
That is because South Carolina’s state legislature, knowing that some jurisdictions may be less conservative than others, stuck a “pre-emption clause” in the state code in 2011, barring the “governing body of any county, municipality, or other political subdivision in the State” from trying to regulate firearms.
But to best understand why gun laws in this country are not about to change, one must also recognise the disproportionate power of the gun lobby. The NRA rallies supporters with a masterful use of fear and distrust of government, and intimidates Republican politicians by turning support for gun rights into a defining test of conservative values. The groupconsistently and successfully diverts attention away from guns to mental illness.
There is also a painful dilemma that honest advocates of gun control must address. It is not clear that limited gun control, of the sort that might be politically possible in America, would actually make gun massacres much rarer, or even stop the country from topping rich-world lists for gun deaths by a mile. For once guns are reasonably common in a society, it is easy to see why some people will feel safer arming themselves. The sort of gun control that has had dramatic results in other countries, such as Britain or Japan, essentially involves no guns, or making it essentially impossible for private citizens to own handguns. This is not about to happen in America.
Here is one last reason why gun laws are so hard to change: America is becoming an increasingly polarised society.
Americans of different political beliefs live ever-more different lives. That adds an element of raw tribalism to what should be dispassionate questions of public policy. Guns are a grim example. Consider polls that show Americans are becoming more hostile to gun control, and more willing to say that guns are necessary for self-defence. The headline numbers are striking enough. But as so often with headline numbers, they conceal vast and widening gaps between different regions, races and classes.
Gallup pollsters have asked Americans the same question for some years, namely whether having a gun in the house makes it a safer or more dangerous place to be. In 2000 Republicans were already more likely than Democrats to think that guns made a home safer, by a margin of 44% to 28%. Just before Mr Obama’s election in 2008 Democrats had become more gun-friendly, with 41% thinking them a source of safety, compared to 53% of Republicans. Then the gap between the two parties exploded. By 2014 Democrats were still at 41%, but 81% of Republicans now said that a gun made their homes safer.
Pew Research Centre polling shows that whites are almost twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to say it is more important to protect gun rights than to control access to guns. Those living in rural areas and Americans living in the South and Midwest are far keener on guns than those in the north-east. Post-graduates are much keener on gun control than those with high school educations alone. Gun ownership follows similar trends.
In short, questions over guns are becoming questions of identity. When Mr Obama or the mayor of Charleston says that gun control would be a logical response to Wednesday’s killings, the message triggers a tribal response. The America that believes that guns make the country more dangerous—urban, educated, Democratic America—is proposing to disarm the America that is sure (indeed increasingly sure) that safety lies in keeping firearms close by. As a result, nobody is about to disarm anyone.