Why America's gun laws are unlikely to ever change

0:00

If the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of 20 innocent children didn't force change on gun ownership in the US then what is it going to take?

The Las Vegas killings was the deadliest mass shooting to happen in the modern United States.

But two of Australia's political experts say it is not enough to trigger a change in US gun law. 

So what would it take?

Melbourne School of Government's US political researcher James Cahill said attacks of this magnitude would need to happen a lot more often to spark a proactive government response.

Mr Cahill says he is skeptical that a shift in America's attitude on guns was ever possible.

A single white rose is illuminated by dozens of candles at a makeshift memorial on the Las Vegas Strip for the victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas
A single white rose is illuminated by dozens of candles at a makeshift memorial on the Las Vegas Strip for the victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas.
AAP

"America seems to have made peace with a certain level of gun carnage," he told SBS World News.

"I think if this sort of attack became a weekly thing, it would be enough to force change at some point.

"It's like road safety - 20,000 people die in car accidents each year and we just accept that as something that just happens. That's kind of where America has got to with guns.

"It doesn't make sense to any reasonable person but there are psychosocial, constitutional and financial issues which prevent change."

Mr Cahill, who is an American, struggled to comprehend why his fellow countrymen still argued there was no solution to gun violence when other democratic societies like Australia have figured it out.

"America stands alone in its persistent gun violence, we know it can be fixed but the political structure doesn't allow us to do it," he said.

Melbourne-based US political analyst Dr Nick Sharman echoed this saying the lack of action from the US on gun control was "a triumph of idiocy over common-sense".

"I think it was the best thing John Howard did in office and it shows the difference in Australian society. When we had a major tragedy [the Port Arthur Massacre] the political forces were able to mobilise and do something about it," he said.

So what has stopped America from following Australia's example and introducing tough gun laws?

The Second Amendment and the land of 'the free man'

The short and sweet wording of the second amendment is up for interpretation: "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."

Dr Sharman felt the founding fathers' intention of the second amendment had been lost in modern society.

"It doesn't say the right of every individual to own a gun," he said.

Dr Sharman felt the intention was to give civilians who were part of a militia the right to have guns for the purpose of protecting society - not to give right to anyone and everyone to own a gun if they desire.

"I think the founding fathers would be horrified to see the way the second amendment has been interpreted," he said.

Mr Cahill felt that while the wording was very brief as it stands the US court system has decided the right to bear arms applies to everyone.

"The maximum interpretation of the second amendment is that you can't restrict guns," he said.

While Mr Cahill said America was a long way from changing the second amendment he was of the view that a change could impact gun control in the US.

a row of different AR-15 style rifles are displayed for sale at the Firing-Line indoor range and gun shop in Aurora.
A row of different AR-15 style rifles are displayed for sale at the Firing-Line indoor range and gun shop in Aurora in 2012.
AAP

"There are two ways to break the deadlock on gun control. One is to pass another amendment or the other is to go through the courts and change the wording (of the Second Amendment)," he told SBS World News.

Mr Cahill noted that gun culture was also linked to status in the US.

"Owning a gun in early days was a sign that you were a 'free man' as opposed to a slave. It was a true sign of distinguishing you from 'lesser people' so it's also tied up in personal mythos," he said.

"It's a highly contentious issue in America. If a court decided to reinterpret the second amendment it would be highly controversial. You'd have a court trying to write gun legislation which is not what it is meant to do."

Voting apathy 

Both experts held the view that compulsory voting would enable gun laws to be passed, however neither could see a change on voting laws in the near future.

"It's so hard to change the machinery in America, everyone would have to be behind it," Mr Cahill said.

"For now, (Republicans) would absolutely be against changing the voting law as Democratic constituents have higher birth rates and immigrants tend to be more likely left of centre.

Nicole Alvarez holds a sign during a "die-in" protest against the National Rifle Association's annual convention, April 2017.
Nicole Alvarez holds a sign during a "die-in" protest against the National Rifle Association's annual convention, April 2017.
AAP

"This is why Republicans want to make it harder to vote and arder for immigrants to come in.

"If you introduce compulsory voting then the Democrats would win every election. That's why it will never happen as the Republicans would never let it."

Without compulsory voting it takes a lot to get Americans motivated to get to the polls.

Both experts felt without compulsory voting the minority 'pro-gun' view was too powerful at the ballot box.

"Voting in the US is voluntary so if people are passionate about wanting their guns they will turn up to the polls en masse. The people who are less motivated to have their say on an issue won't turn up to vote," Dr Sharman said.

"Majority of people are actually against free range gun laws that allow people to use guns without any restrictions.

"I'd say at least 30 per cent of people in the US are pro-gun but it's hard to say as there are degrees to which people support it.

"I'd say there are about 10 per cent of hardliners who believe you should be able to own whatever gun you want."

Mr Cahill said the percentage of families who owned a gun had dropped dramatically in the US since the 1990s, but the number of guns they own has gone up.

"If people feel more intensely, they are more likely to vote on the gun issue," he said.

Political suicide

"I think at the moment there are not enough politicians who are able to put their political interests aside and do the best thing for their country," Dr Sharman said.

He noted the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, despite costing him votes in the south.

"He was able to stand up and say he supports civil rights legislation, that cost him votes but he was prepared to do that," Dr Sharman said.

Former US president Barack Obama with now president Donald Trump. Obama was criticised for not taking a stance on gun control after the Sandy Hook massacre.
Former US president Barack Obama with now president Donald Trump. Obama was criticised for not taking a stance on gun control after the Sandy Hook massacre.
AAP

Dr Sharman felt President Barack Obama could have acted on gun control after Sandy Hook - but did not.

"Obama was president when Sandy Hook happened. He talked about it but was unprepared to put the full weight of his political power behind doing something about it," he said.

"Donald Trump doesn't have the political will to do something about it at all."

The NRA and their influence in politics

The National Rifle Association of America has been called 'America's third political party' due to their political influence, particularly on the Republican Party.

Mr Cahill felt America's strong appetite for guns, combined with the NRA's powerful voice made it difficult for a shift in political attitudes.

"The difference between Australia and America is that America has a massive profitable industry in making guns. You have a successful business lobby that wants to make sure legislation is not put in place," he said.

"The NRA is much more a front for the gun industry than something that is for gun owners.

"They are borderline stoking a civil war in America."

Dr Sharman noted the NRA's ability quickly mobilise voters to combat a gun control vote.

"Nothing will sway the issue on gun control in the US, at the moment there is a lack of politicians who will take on the gun lobby," he said.

"The power of the NRA trumps celebrities (such as Ariana Grande speaking out against guns after her concert was targeted by terrorists).

"They're overpowered by people who vote on a single issue and people are frightened of them.

"It's lunacy, it's a political situation that people are too frightened to do anything about. The NRA can win an election for a politician."

Gun control in the US is a heated issue.
AAP

Will gun culture ever change in America?

Considering what's currently preventing the US from taking a tougher stance on gun control, the outlook is grim when it comes to the likeliness of a change in attitudes.

The weight of the Second Amendment (even if misinterpreted), compulsory voting and the NRA combined with political self-interest makes America's guns a terrifying issue to speak out against.

"The best way to change a policy is to get some of both parties on board, frankly I don't see anything happening in America to change this," Mr Cahill said.

Dr Sharman said a change of gun policy in the US just wasn't possible in this political climate.

"If killing innocent children at school is not going to change it, then killing 50 people at a country music festival is not going to change it either," he said.

"We as Australians might think that's ludicrous but that's the reality as it stands at the moment."

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch