There are a number of reasons for this silence but the most important among them comes in three words: National Rifle Association (NRA). U.S. politicians have been running scared from the NRA for decades. The most notable example was what happened in the 1994 elections, when key members of Congress lost their seats after voting for an assault weapons ban, allegedly due to the work of the four million member NRA.
There is only one problem with this prime example of the NRA’s political power. It’s a myth. The members of Congress who were said to have lost their seats in 1994 because of their vote for the assault weapons ban were less than a dozen among 34 Democratic incumbents who failed to be re-elected. Their defeats were part of the so-called “Gingrich Revolution,” an electoral landslide that brought a Republican majority to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 50 years, and resulted in Newt Gingrich being named as the leader of that body. There were many issues that combined to bring the Democratic loss in 1994 – the gun issue was just one of them. And the man who proposed the assault weapons ban in the first place–President Bill Clinton–was re-elected handily when he ran for a second term in 1996.
But, whether myth or reality, the NRA’s role in the 1994 elections helped cement its reputation as a lobby that no politician should oppose if they want to keep their job. It is also believed that the NRA and the pro-gun movement helped defeat Al Gore in the 2000 elections, as George W. Bush received strong margins of support from anti-gun control voters in a number of key states. As with the 1994 case, this example is probably overblown, but it has put fear in the hearts of politicians nonetheless.
This is the political context in which Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. Although the Democratic platform that year included a few gun control proposals, Obama was careful not to say a word on the subject on the campaign trail for fear of drawing the wrath of the NRA. The organization opposed him anyway, but the Obama campaign believes that the NRA had less leverage because their candidate’s silence on the gun issue gave the organization less to point to in mobilizing their political base.
Obama has continued to steer clear of gun control in his first term as president, while Mitt Romney has taken the usual right-wing Republican position of opposing any restrictions on gun ownership.
The costs of the unwillingness of politicians to take on the NRA are immense. Over 9,000 people died in gun-related homicides in the United States in 2011, from all races, classes, and places of origin. This is an astounding total when one considers that the death of 2,000 people in an organized military conflict is considered to be a major war. While inner city neighborhoods in places like Chicago have suffered the greatest consequences, nowhere has been exempt, as evidenced by the movie theater shootings in suburban Aurora, Colorado.
The absence of gun regulations makes mass killings possible. The Colorado shooter got his semi-automatic rifle from a friend who bought it for him from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show. Unlicensed dealers are not required to do background checks on purchasers to see if they have a criminal history or any mental health issues that should prevent them from having access to a gun. And the woman who bought the gun for the killer said that it was clear to the dealer that the killer, who was too young to buy a gun, was going to be the ultimate owner. In an even easier purchase, the killer bought his ammunition on the Internet, with no questions asked.
The damage caused by the NRA and its advocacy for loose gun regulations is not limited to the United States. Over 70% of the guns used in crimes in Mexico, including a majority of drug-related killings, come from the United States, in large part because it is so easy to buy them in the United States. Guns produced in the United States are used to commit large numbers of crimes around the world. Even in Japan, where about one-third of all guns there are of U.S. origin.
Perhaps the most infamous case of the international influence of the NRA has been its role in blocking the creation of a global Arms Trade Treaty.
The treaty, which was discussed at a month-long meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York in July of this year, would make it harder for human rights abusers, terrorists, and aggressor nations to get their hands on weapons of all kinds, including the guns and assault weapons that are most commonly used not only in crimes but in civil wars and other internal conflicts.
The United States has been a tepid supporter of the Arms Trade Treaty during the Obama years, working in some instances to weaken the treaty by doing things like fighting to exclude ammunition from control under the agreement. But it appeared that the U.S. was going to come around to support an imperfect but still useful version of a treaty in the waning days of the UN meeting when it suddenly withdrew its support because it said the treaty needed further “study” and more careful crafting. In fact, many observers believe that the Obama administration pulled back because of fear that the NRA would make its life difficult if it assented to a global arms control measure in a presidential election year.
So, the NRA’s lobbying has not only made it easier for gun crimes to be committed in the United States, but it has helped to thwart international efforts to control the instruments of choice in the majority of today’s conflicts.
Undercutting the power of the NRA will require a major public outcry that will make politicians realize that there is a political price to be paid for opposing gun control. And it will require political courage on the part of the next U.S. president – or, if Mitt Romney is elected, by key leaders in Congress. Part of that effort will involve puncturing the myth of an all-powerful NRA.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy (CIP) and a regular columnist for the CIP Americas Program.
For more information:
The Capitol of Colombia Says, “Farewell to Arms”. April 3, 2012, CIP Americas