The tide is turning for gun control in the US

While public attitudes on the gun crisis are changing, much needs to be done to stop gun violence in the US.

Gun Reform protest Reuters
A protester holds up a sign during a demonstration calling for Congress to pass gun safety laws at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, September 25, 2019 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

In what would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, the ground is shifting in the United States on the issue of gun control and halting the proliferation of firearms. The once omnipotent gun lobby is now weakened, if not dying, and the public support for gun restrictions is increasing beyond party lines.

For now, the movement for gun control still appears to be focused on half measures, such as universal background checks, that are grossly inadequate to address the scourge of gun violence in the US. Nevertheless, the evidence for a sea change in attitudes on this issue is still encouraging.

The signs that public attitudes in the US are shifting on this uniquely American problem are clear. For example, the retail giant Walmart has ceased all sales of handgun ammunition and has requested that its customers not open carry their weapons into its stores.

Other businesses have followed suit, as the chief executive officers of 145 companies wrote a letter to the US Senate, proclaiming the country is experiencing a public health crisis, and saying it is “simply unacceptable” to take no action on gun violence and mass shootings. The CEOs added that new laws mandating background checks for gun purchases “are a common-sense solution with overwhelming public support and are a critical step toward stemming the gun violence epidemic in this country”.

The students in Parkland, Florida who experienced the horrific February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people, have called for a sweeping legislative package called “A Peace Plan for a Safer America”. 

The bold and audacious plan includes, among other measures, halving the rate of gun deaths in a decade, raising the national standards on gun ownership, including a national registry system and a ban on weapons of war. The plan also demands accountability for the gun lobby, investigations into the National Rifle Association, overturning the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of the Second Amendment to the US constitution, and a National Director of Gun Violence Prevention reporting to the president.     

Even the typical red-state conservative Republican lawmakers are showing a change of heart on gun control, if not sensing a change in the political winds. Following two deadly shootings in his state in August, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed eight executive orders designed to prevent mass shootings through better reporting, while Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick expressed support for background checks for person-to-person sales.

In the aftermath of the deadly mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, also in August, state’s Governor Mike DeWine proposed17-point plan, including a “red flag law” to confiscate guns from those who pose a threat to themselves and others.

A recent NPR/PBS Newshour Marist poll found there is widespread support among gun owners and people across all party affiliations for gun restrictions. For example, more people believe it is more important to control gun violence (55 percent) than protect gun rights (39 percent). Some 57 percent of people support a ban on assault weapons such as the AR-15 and AK-47, while 61 percent support a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines; 72 percent believe in a mandatory licence before buying a gun, and 83 percent support background checks for gun purchases.

According to a Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans support stricter gun regulations – reflecting an increase in recent years from a record low of 44 percent in 2011, and a record high of 78 percent in 1991. 

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” said presidential candidate and former member of Congress Beto O’Rourke at a recent Democratic debate in Houston, reflecting a political landscape in which politicians, unafraid of a waning gun lobby, are emboldened to call for aggressive antigun prescriptions.

This lobby – which spent $54m in the 2016 election, including $30m on the Trump campaign – has peddled for years the arms manufacturers’ agenda of unbridled gun proliferation, fomenting violence by promoting vigilante “stand your ground” laws, and promoting racial strife through its now-defunct propaganda arm NRA TV. For decades, it has sponsored election campaigns of lawmakers so they look the other way as gun-related deaths have soared. 

While the transformation of public opinion in the US, brought about by years of activism by the families of gun violence victims, is heartening, it is not nearly enough. Stemming the tide of mass shootings from assault weapons is crucial, but it does not address the myriad issues concerning gun violence. For example, of the more than 36,000 people who die from gun violence each year, under 13,000 are murdered, while more than 22,000 commit suicide.

Guns in the US are linked to a culture of toxic masculinity domestic abuse and misogyny. Over half of women who are murdered in a domestic partner homicide are killed with a gun. Further women in the US are 21 times more likely to die from a gun than are women in other high-income nations.

Mass shooters and domestic terrorists tend to be more often than not white men. Communities of colour are disproportionately impacted by guns, which are the leading cause of death for black children. Further, unarmed black men are four times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.  

Ultimately, the country must confront and liberate itself from the culture of the gun, which is wrapped up in notions of patriotism and white supremacy and which ultimately has its roots in this country’s colonial practices of enslavement of Africans and the dislocation and genocide of Native peoples.

Educating the public, particularly school children on the national legacy of racism and the history of oppression, subjugation and violence must be part of the solution. Schools must teach children alternatives to violence and instruct them in conflict resolution and learning to resolve their differences through communication and cooperation rather than the use of force.

Public health research must study the economic, social and other factors behind America’s high suicide rate, and consider implementing programmes to stem the tide of gun homicides in economically distressed and traumatized populations.

The country should determine why young white men are turning to domestic terrorism, and promote initiatives to counter the rise of white supremacist violence. Arms seizures and gun buyback programmes are necessary and inevitable, but society must also utilise iniatives, which enable young men to confront their toxic masculinity and its impact on their incarceration and life of violence.

Any effort to end gun proliferation is doomed to fail if it does not take such a holistic approach in addressing the underlying and interconnected social conditions, above and beyond easy access to the weapons themselves. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.