This month's tragic slaughter in a Florida high school has prompted national outrage and mobilized young people around the state and the country. But it has led to little besides a minimal state proposal in Florida that has not yet been formalized nor passed and to the cancellation of some airline, rental-car, insurance and moving-van discount programs for National Rifle Association members.
And while the response to the mass shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may be more robust than the reaction to other gun episodes, the changes in American gun laws are measured in centimetres, not kilometres, and the issue likely will fade from prominence by the time of the fall midterm congressional elections.
President Donald Trump has floated an array of ideas: arming teachers; greater background checks on gun buyers; and raising the age for sales of semi-automatics from 18 to 21 – the latter being a measure Florida is seriously contemplating.
"It's time," Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Saturday. "I think the NRA's going to be for it."
On Sunday, the NRA sought to shut down anything resembling gun control – and reminded Americans that, when it comes to guns, it sets the message and tone. "I know that people are trying to find daylight between President Trump and five million law-abiding gun owners [NRA members] all across the United States," the NRA's Dana Loesch told ABC's This Week program. "These are just things that he's discussing right now."
Indeed, the only real change is likely in Florida, and that is largely because Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who is an NRA member, is girding for a Senate race in a state that has also endured mass shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale since 2016. Mr. Trump's attention may well veer away, and the prospects of national legislation are close to nil in a Congress controlled by Republicans and vulnerable to strenuous NRA lobbying.
This is a pattern that has repeated itself for decades and is a reflection of a centuries-long American dependence upon, fascination with and worship of guns that may be a more significant cultural dividing line with Canada than any border station along the continentwide frontier. And while Canada has suffered gun violence, including the 1989 killing of 14 women at Montreal's École Polytechnique, it was an American radical, H. Rap Brown, who said that violence was "as American as cherry pie."
"We have gun nuts here in Canada, but nothing like in the United States," said the University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell, author of a 2015 unified history of the United States and Canada. "The NRA sees themselves as revolutionaries fighting a government trying to take away liberties. That revolutionary impulse is enshrined in American history and is not enshrined in ours."
The United States has a population roughly 10 times bigger than Canada, but has 25 times as many privately owned firearms, according to a Gallup study. Americans, who constitute less than one-twentieth of the global population, own 40 per cent of the planet's guns. The gun culture is embedded deeply in the broader American popular culture, in part as the legacy of a frontier past where guns were required to hunt for food, ward off animal threats, battle Indigenous people and prevent slave uprisings.
"What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination," wrote Richard Hofstadter, one of the leading U.S. historians of the 20th century. "Before the days of spectator sports, when competitive athletics became a basic part of popular culture, hunting and fishing probably were the chief American sports, sometimes wantonly pursued, as in the decimation of the bison. But for millions of American boys, learning to shoot and above all graduating from toy guns and receiving the first real rifle of their own were milestones of life, veritable rites of passage that certified their arrival at manhood."
The place of guns in American life has been fortified by the Second Amendment, ratified in 1791 and proclaiming, "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." For nearly two centuries, that amendment, now the centre of a fevered American debate, was interpreted as an instrument to protect militia, not as a shield for gun ownership. When Carl Bogus, a Roger Williams University School of Law researcher, examined law-review articles from 1887 to 1960, he found no evidence of the notion that the Second Amendment protected individual gun rights.
"The Second Amendment conviction about guns is a relatively recent one, the result of a campaign from the NRA to prove there is a guarantee of individual rights to bear arms rather than the guarantee of the right for militias," Martha Minow, dean of the Harvard Law School, said in an interview. "That was not the consensus among scholars, but the NRA promoted the idea so much that it became part of the American canon."
It actually is possible to pinpoint the turning point. Until May 21, 1977, the NRA primarily was a hobbyist group, emphasizing marksmanship and promoting hunting. But then a group of activists in orange hunting caps mounted an insurgency at the NRA's annual meeting in Cincinnati and changed both the direction of the organization and the nature of the gun debate.
The NRA's power – through lobbying and campaign contributions – has made it virtually impossible for anti-gun legislation to move through Congress. A study by four West Georgia University scholars found that mass shootings and assassinations always lead to more attention to the gun issue, with the principal action occurring at the state level, as in the current Florida example, rather than in Congress.
"There is an American view that guns are an American right," said the political scientist Anthony Fleming, one of the study's authors, "and even conservative Canadians have the view that guns should be more regulated than they are in the United States. … Canadians didn't rebel the way Americans did and aren't as concerned about having guns to protect themselves against government."
Other factors militate against gun legislation in the United States. "Some may argue that people don't need assault weapons," said Adam Lankford of the Department of Criminology at the University of Alabama. "But just as someone who cares about cars wants the most souped-up car, someone who cares about guns wants the coolest and most souped-up gun." The result is a high rate of gun crimes and a low probability of gun legislation.
"American society has always had a violent streak, but what makes it a more murderous and death-filled culture is the ready availability of guns," said David Harris, an expert on criminal law at the University of Pittsburgh. "Crimes that might injure one or a couple of people even very badly in other societies become mass murders when carried out with the killing machines that modern guns can be."