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The NRA is conducting a radical experiment on gun rights—and Americans are willing guinea pigs

Reuters/John Sommers
Nothing to see here.
  • Firmin DeBrabander
By Firmin DeBrabander

Professor of philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

On June 12, Americans woke up to the horrifying news that a man armed with assault-style weaponry had gunned down 49 mostly Latino, mostly gay club goers in Orlando. A mere eight days later, and after a highly publicized, Democrat-led filibuster, the US Senate failed to pass four separate gun control measures that arguably could have made it more difficult for suspected terrorists to buy weapons. Although House Democrats are, as I write, attempting to force their conservative colleagues to vote on a similarly symbolic measure, it’s time to face facts: The United States is engaged in a radical experiment in gun rights, and we are the guinea pigs.

We would do well to grasp this. Unlike Marco Rubio’s incredibly tone-deaf comments last week, none of this is inevitable. American cities do not have to “take turns” hosting mass shootings. We are often reminded that no other developed nation has anything near our level of gun violence. Americans need also to understand that we are undergoing an unprecedented expansion of gun rights.

Americans need to understand that we are undergoing an unprecedented expansion of gun rights.

Consider the current state of affairs: Even before the most recent Senate vote, the NRA had helped defeat one of the last remaining bans on Concealed Carry, in Illinois and the District of Columbia, and ensured that Open Carry is legal in some form in 45 states. Since 2005, 23 states have passed so-called stand your ground bills—soon to be 24, now that Missouri state legislators approved a similar provision last month. The concept of stand your ground is itself a bold expansion of gun rights, protecting gun owners who use their firepower in public to shoot and kill perceived threats—a notoriously subjective endeavor.

The NRA has also beaten back universal background checks and stymied the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the federal agency charged with stemming the flow of illegal guns, thereby ensuring that criminals can freely access firearms through private transactions or illegal dealers. The astonishing loophole allowing terror suspects to buy guns and assault weapons is a direct result of the NRA’s aggressive advocacy.

With criminals and terrorists empowered by our loose gun laws, people have taken to buying more guns. Not surprisingly, the nation’s private arsenal has swelled in recent years. Indeed, gun production has doubled in America since 2009, and there are now more guns than citizens in this country. Also not surprisingly, mass shootings are on the rise over the past decade, according to data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Closer to home, major cities are awash in blood; Baltimore experienced close to 300 gun-related homicides in 2015—an unprecedented pace—while Chicago has experienced over 1,800 shootings (not all of them fatal) since January 1, 2016. The Washington Post recently detailed how the prevalence of guns and gun-friendly laws has made deadly shootings over the most insignificant conflicts shockingly common.

The prevalence of guns and gun-friendly laws has made deadly shootings over the most insignificant conflicts shockingly common.

The gun rights movement has pushed states to increase the number of public places where people can carry guns; in Georgia, this effort now includes restaurants, bars, government buildings, airports, and churches (if the pastor complies). Since 2004, nine states have passed Campus Carry bills, allowing students and faculty in public universities to carry guns to class.

Taking this idea even further, Missouri state legislators recently decided to make theirs the 11th state to allow gun owners to exercise concealed carry without a permit and no safety training—at all. This seems like a patently bad idea: With permitless carry, you will not know if the armed person before you is a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” Indeed, with no need to get a permit, criminals could soon carry weapons freely all over the state of Missouri.

Defending this outrageous new law, one pro-gun website declares: “it’s time for ‘Freedom to Carry’ to replace ‘Right to Carry.’ No tests. No taxes. No paperwork. No fingerprints in the criminal database. No photographs. No expiration dates. No plastic-coated permission slip… it’s time to get back to the ‘culture of marksmanship’ our Founders envisioned, a nation trained in arms…”

How, one might ask, is permitless carry supposed to inaugurate a “culture of marksmanship” of its own, with no requirement for gun owners to have considerable safety training? Our “Founders,” for one, knew otherwise—and in fact imposed a host of regulations, all of which contemporary gun rights advocates would deem onerous, apparently. In early America, historians tell us, people were required to be armed for militia service. But they also had to demonstrate that they kept said weapons securely and in good working order—subject to inspection by the authorities—and were able to use them accurately and effectively. So, essentially, the opposite of permitless carry.

Reuters/John Sommers II
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre rallies his troops in May.

Even before this outrageous law, Missouri was already a test case for the folly of expansive gun rights. In an important and widely circulated study by Johns Hopkins researchers—cited by the US president Barack Obama no less—Missouri murders rose by 25% following the “2007 repeal of a law… that required background checks and licenses for all handgun owners.” The study cited Missouri as an illuminating counterpoint to Connecticut, which implemented the laws that Missouri had banished and saw a significant corresponding decline in gun homicides.

Even Missourians recognize the troubling trajectory of their state. According to polls conducted by gun safety organization Everytown, a considerable majority objected to permitless carry in 2015, but lawmakers overwhelmingly ignored voters’ sentiment. This dynamic has been repeated in states across the country, where radical gun laws have been enacted despite popular disapproval. For example, polls revealed that most Georgia residents rejected the state’s recent law allowing people to carry guns in an astounding array of public places—the so-called “guns everywhere bill.” Another poll conducted by Everytown concluded most Texans also object to the state’s new Open Carry law, set to take effect on August 1.

Voters need to make elected officials pay when they ignore us. Will Missouri voters hold their legislators accountable? And how about voters in Georgia and Texas? Thus far, it seems, voters have not been sufficiently motivated to prioritize gun safety measures.

It is easy for Americans to become demoralized and disillusioned in the face of mounting gun violence. Tragedies like Orlando make us want to throw our hands up in despair. But we need to understand that when it comes to gun safety, our politicians—with our implicit approval—are not advocating for even the most basic measures that have proven effective both in reducing gun fatalities and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. What’s happening in the House right now is a symbolic step in the right direction, but it is not anywhere close to enough. We have given the green light to the NRA’s radical agenda; we have consented to the experiment.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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