Firearms sales in the United States appear as healthy as ever thanks to a fear the federal government is seeking impose restrictions on Second Amendment rights, a belief that does not hold water as the Obama administration has not actually accomplished anything substantial on this front
It only took a few weeks – and some 80,000 angry messages – before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had to back down.
In February, the U.S. federal agency floated a proposal to ban a particular kind of armour-piercing bullet know as the M855 “green tip.” The ATF has previously banned certain types of bullets, but this time it decided to open the process up to public consultation. What followed was a massive campaign against the ban, waged by many of the largest pro-gun groups in the country.
“The vast majority of the comments received to date are critical of the framework, and include issues that deserve further study,” the bureau said in a statement this week. “Accordingly, ATF will not at this time seek to issue a final framework.”
There exist in the United States few domestic issues as polarizing and paradoxical as gun control. Myriad surveys have shown a strange divergence – some indicating that the number of people buying guns has remained flat or declined for a decade, others showing that gun sales have, during the same period, skyrocketed. And even as the U.S. continues to suffer from one of the highest gun-related death rates in the world, gun control remains one of the country’s political taboos, vehemently opposed by a vocal and efficient lobby whose most powerful player is the National Rifle Association.
According to the 2014 edition of the General Social Survey, one of the largest general trend reports in the U.S., 31 per cent of households reported having a firearm. That’s the lowest level on record, tied with 2010, since the survey began standardized monitoring in 1972.
But at the same time, firearms sales appear to be as healthy as ever. According to the FBI criminal background-check database – often used as a proxy for measuring gun sales – checks have steadily risen over the past decade and a half, from 8.5 million in 2000 to nearly 21 million last year. Some of the sharpest spikes coincide with the election and re-election of President Barack Obama, suggesting a concern that a Democratic White House would move to limit gun rights – a concern that, for the most part, has not materialized.
But within the data, there is a more complex story. For years, the General Social Survey tended to show a significantly lower rate of gun ownership in the United States than many other surveys – a discrepancy that may be explained not by statistics, but by the basic mistrust of authority that appears to be a common denominator among the most fervent pro-gun advocates.
“The only thing I know that’s for sure different between the GSS and other polls is that the GSS is an in-home, face-to-face survey,” said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University. “What that does is make it a non-anonymous survey. You may say gun owners are paranoid for thinking it, but they think governments – and in particular the federal government – are out to get their guns.”
It is that sense of mistrust that has, in large part, fuelled the lobbying and marketing efforts of the country’s biggest pro-gun groups. Virtually every measure put forth by the Obama administration to expand background checks or impose similar limitations has been characterized by opponents as the first step in a much more broad effort to separate Americans from their guns.
“The Obama administration has proposed the mildest kinds of things, like extending background checks to private transfers of guns,” Prof. Kleck said. “But in this heightened context of concern and suspicion, that was regarded as a threat to the Second Amendment. The Obama administration is widely regarded as pro-gun control, but they haven’t actually accomplished anything.”
(The National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Second Amendment Foundation, two of the largest pro-gun organizations in the country, did not respond to requests for comment).
In reality, gun ownership appears under no such threat – more civilians own guns in the U.S. than almost anywhere else on the planet. According to the most recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people are fatally shot in the U.S. every year, but those statistics have had little impact on ownership rates. Indeed, many reports indicate gun sales tend to spike after major gun-related incidents, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 – perhaps as a pre-emptive measure in anticipation that the federal government will respond to the incident with tighter gun-control laws.
Rather than federal control, though, many gun laws are under the purview of individual states, and vary wildly. On Thursday, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington-based activist group, launched a media effort aimed at highlighting the states with the most lax regulations. Using a parody recommendation site called CrimAdvisor, the group – named for James Brady, the former presidential press secretary wounded in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981 – rated each state on its background check systems, among other metrics (it declared Arizona the most “criminal-friendly” state for the ease with which guns may be obtained there).
“This whole thing would be really funny if it weren’t so tragically true,” Brady Campaign president Dan Gross said. “Several states make it so outrageously easy to get and carry guns without background checks that they have become prime destinations for criminals.”
But such efforts are unlikely to offset much more structural challenges faced by the gun-control lobby. For years, the Democratic Party was seen as largely in favour of more restrictive gun measures. But more recently, some southern and western Democrats have broken ranks with the White House on the issue – partly to appease the electorate in regions where Mr. Obama and his policies have become more and more unpopular. In addition, the Democrats who are in favour of such measures find themselves hamstrung by the party’s poor showing in the most recent midterm elections, which gave Republicans control of the House and the Senate.
“It’s just a matter of numbers,” Prof. Kleck said. “The pro-control forces don’t have the votes. If anything gets passed, it is for the most part trivial.”