Why Americans Won't Give Up Their Guns

Steve Saideman considers the different gun cultures in Canada and the U.S. in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown.
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December 17, 2012
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As an American ex-pat in Canada, I am often asked by people on one side of the border to interpret or make sense of events on the other side.  Canadians and most of the rest of the world are surely confused and disappointed by the events in Newtown, Connecticut last week.  Why is it that Americans seem to allow for the private ownership of weapons designed to kill large numbers of people?  Damned if I know.  Well, actually, I do know, but am incredibly frustrated about the status quo – that the National Rifle Association and American political institutions combine to create paralysis on this issue.  Can there be significant change?  I doubt it.  While I tend to think that American exceptionalism is exaggerated, here is a case where it matters a great deal and in a very destructive way. 

When I arrived in Canada ten years ago, I was surprised at how little protection there was against the tyranny of the majority.  Sure, as a political scientist, I knew that Westminster systems meant that a small shift in votes could turn a party with a small plurality in votes into a government with the ability to write legislation at will­ – and that there was little the opposition could do in this case.  But I had not appreciated until I moved here that the Notwithstanding Clause and parliamentary supremacy meant that the courts cannot really protect the rights of individuals. 

However, the flip side of this is that the American institutions designed to protect against the tyranny of the majority – against the tyranny of government – can empower small groups to block efforts to protect the population.  The Second Amendment, “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,” was designed to provide a check on government.  The design of the political system gives groups various means to access the political system to block change, especially through the House of Representatives, which faces re-election every two years.  Combine that with weak parties and large amounts of campaign cash that is outside the control of those parties, and you have representatives more focused on what is best for the gun lobby and not so much on what is best for public policy.  Presidential candidates face similar incentives since the Electoral College and the primary processes give more power to the rural areas than to the cities. 

Of course, we cannot just blame American institutions.  The American public is ambivalent about gun control.  Perhaps this year of massacres will change that, but the NRA and its allies have done a good job of convincing people that gun control does not work and that government is the threat. The basic problem is that Americans do a poor job of thinking comparatively.  There have been plenty of statistics and other comparisons published since the kids and their teachers were killed on Friday that demonstrate quite clearly that the U.S. is very distinct from the rest of the advanced democracies when it comes to mass shootings.  Indeed, Australia changed the frequency of mass shootings nearly overnight with increased gun regulations.  But it is un-American, alas, to use these examples to inform the American debate.

However, America’s gun obsession matters beyond its borders – not just because it causes countries to ponder the sanity of the American people or lose respect for the U.S. as any kind of model for good government.  It affects the world as the ready supply of guns in the U.S. spills over into and feeds Mexico’s drug wars.  American resistance to gun regulation impacts its stances on the flow of weapons around the world (of course, the U.S. Senate these days has a sufficiently powerful minority opposed to any and all international agreements).

Of course, the U.S. is not alone in struggling with gun control. Canada has moved back and forth on the issue, as Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have ended the long-gun registry, arguing that it was ineffective.  There are two differences between the Canadian politics and the American politics of this issue.  First, in Canada, there is much less support for the view that gun control is a means to disarm the public by a tyrannical government and little support for the availability of guns designed to cause maximum carnage.  Second, in Canada, political parties have much more power over their membership so we can expect to see big swings in stances on guns when elections produce new governments.  In the U.S., Democrats fear the NRA and its supporters regardless of which party is in power, so it is not just a matter of who controls Congress.  One of the funny results of all of this is that Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, has been pro-guns for quite a long time.

As a result, while I hope that these events lead to some sane gun control, such as the banning of high capacity magazines, I sincerely doubt that anything of consequence will be changed.  The forces of inertia are very strong in the U.S. political system on this issue.  If the body count that has accumulated thus far cannot sway the public and the political system, I doubt that more massacres will make much of a difference.  I sincerely hope that I am wrong.