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Why the US gun lobby has a fatal grip on American politics

The NRA funnels millions into the Republican Party, making it a powerful force against any proposed restrictions on firearms.

By Emily Tamkin

The day after his 18th birthday on 16 May, a teenager in Uvalde, Texas, purchased a semi-automatic rifle, capable of shooting dozens of rounds a minute, from his local gun shop. The next day he bought 375 rounds of ammunition. Two days after that, he bought a second semi-automatic rifle from the same shop. Each of these purchases were legal. The following week, on 24 May, he entered Robb Elementary School and shot and killed two teachers and 19 young children. It was the US’s 27th school shooting this year.

Twenty-seven school shootings in a year – before the year is even halfway over – is an unfathomable number. After each high-profile shooting, many Americans ask themselves if this, finally, will be the moment that spurs change. Yet it wasn’t the moment in 2012 when a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took the lives of 20 six- and seven-year-olds. It wasn’t in 2016 when a man shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Or in 2017 when a man shot and killed 59 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Gun advocates in the US mythologise the second amendment of the US constitution, which 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.” They ignore the fact that there is nothing in the constitution about assault rifles, or that letting any 18-year-old buy such a weapon, no questions asked, is antithetical to “well regulated”.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), now the most powerful organisation lobbying against even mild restrictions on gun ownership, was, until the 1970s, non-partisan. Indeed, the NRA backed the National Firearms Act of 1934, which taxed the making and transfer of arms, and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulated gun sales internationally and across state lines. Some historians argue the latter decision was part of a process that politicised the NRA. Others have made the case that it was the backlash against civil rights in the 1960s that prompted many white Americans to view the right to bear arms as a necessity not for a well-regulated militia, but to protect one’s family. In the decades since, gun control has been transformed into a deadly battle in America’s culture war. 

The Republican Party has become entwined with the NRA’s agenda, refusing to support even light-touch legislation such as requiring universal background checks, which polling suggests the majority of Americans support. It is rewarded for this both by its base, which believes in the right to unchecked access to firearms, and by the NRA, which funnels tens of millions of dollars to the party. Texas senator Ted Cruz accepts more money from the NRA and other gun-lobby organisations than anyone else in the Senate. 

And so, in the aftermath of mass shootings, Republicans tend to advocate restrictions on schools. Following the Uvalde shooting, Cruz and the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, suggested that limiting the number of doors at schools was a solution, while the conservative online publication the Federalist suggested parents home-school their children. Republicans have also suggested arming teachers or stressed the need for police officers in schools. Yet armed police didn’t prevent the tragedy at Uvalde. Officers were on the scene for more than an hour before entering, as children inside repeatedly called the police for help. When asked why officers left the shooter with so many students for so long, a Texas Department of Public Safety official said that they were cautious about engaging with the shooter because “they could have been shot”.

[See also: US gun violence is not just a domestic political issue]

Yet it would be a mistake to blame only the NRA or the Republicans for inertia over gun laws. The response from the Democratic leadership has been woefully inadequate. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, where the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting occurred, has championed gun control for a decade. On the evening of 24 May, he gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor, asking his colleagues, “What are we doing here?” He then told reporters he was sure that there were ten Republicans who would join Democrats in supporting legislation on guns, despite all evidence from the past decade suggesting otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, responded to the shooting by encouraging Americans to vote in the November midterm elections. The Senate then adjourned for a ten-day recess. According to the Brady Campaign, a non-profit organisation that advocates for gun control, 321 people are shot every day in the US – which means more than 3,000 are likely to be killed or injured by guns by the time the Senate gets back to work. We do not know how many shootings, in schools or elsewhere, will take place between now and November’s elections.

Democrats are not even united in opposition to the NRA. The day of the shooting coincided with the Texas primary, in which the Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar, who opposes abortion and has accepted donations from the NRA, ran against the more progressive Jessica Cisneros. Yet the Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, endorsed Cuellar, and the party invested money in his primary race. 

One Democrat did at least offer an expression of the anger many were feeling. Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman who is now running for governor, showed up at a press conference held by the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, on 25 May. “This is on you,” he told Abbott before he was escorted out by security. Outside, a reporter asked O’Rourke about Abbott’s comment that now wasn’t the right time to “make this political”.

“Now is the time,” O’Rourke said, “to stop the next shooting.” By the following Monday there had been at least 12 more mass shootings in the US.

[See also: The Texas school shooting won’t prompt a gun ban in America]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special