Coverage of last week’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school has followed a predictable pattern. After all the horrifying details are released of the shooting, we return to a very simple debate: why can’t America stop the scourge of gun violence?
The reason is that gun violence is emblematic of a broken political system that fails to protect its own citizens.
Frequent mass shootings are one of the most widely known things about the US internationally, and are a stain on the country’s international reputation.
President Joe Biden came to office promising to restore some measure of faith in American democracy, and to prove the American system was a superior model to that of autocratic great powers such as China and Russia.
But when it comes to curbing gun violence in America, a very different international narrative takes hold. Global audiences often see the failure to take aggressive action against gun violence as a symptom of a dysfunctional system of government incapable of protecting its own citizens, including children.
News agencies of countries such as China often taunt the US for failing to take aggressive action on guns. In 2019, Chinese tabloid Global Times claimed China’s effective gun control was “a lesson for the US”.
These arguments are obviously made for self-interested reasons: namely, to present the Chinese government in a much more favourable light. But given the extent to which the US believes in the superiority of its values, one would think the criticisms should sting. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
A 2021 Pew Research Survey found 53% of Americans want stricter gun laws. This includes 81% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, but only 20% of Republicans and those who lean Republican.
However, support for specific restrictions like background checks is a lot higher.
No longer a good model
No matter how often Biden talks about restoring “America’s soul”, as he did in his inaugural address, America’s international reputation has taken a big hit.
International student numbers in America, a good gauge of America’s ability to attract foreign talent to its universities, declined during the Trump years and wasn’t solely attributable to the pandemic. The country’s broken politics, which included rising anti-immigrant sentiment and gun violence, played its part in making the US a much less attractive environment.
Opinion polls also confirm a declining faith in the health of American democracy. Across 16 advanced economies surveyed by the Pew Research Center, an average of 83% of people said the US is no longer a good model of democracy to follow.
This makes for depressing reading and seemingly makes it incumbent on the Biden administration to take action on gun control. Biden is rightly appalled by this latest massacre and will advocate the need for gun reform. But without the support of the Congress, little will happen federally.
This is the story of the Obama presidency on gun reform. It’s shameful the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, where 20 children were killed along with six staff members, didn’t lead to comprehensive gun reforms in the way the Port Arthur massacre and the Christchurch mosque shootings did in Australia and New Zealand.
Worse still, some American politicians bragged about their ability to stop gun reform. Republican Senator Ted Cruz ran a campaign ad stating: “After Sandy Hook, Ted Cruz stopped Obama’s push for new gun-control laws.” He’s now tweeting that: “Heidi & I are fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families in the horrific shooting.”
This is America’s broken political system in a nutshell.
Cruz doesn’t represent majority opinion in America, but the Democrat-controlled Congress won’t enact reform because Democrat Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema don’t support getting rid of the filibuster. A filibuster is when a member of a legislative body such as the US Senate endlessly talks in order to obstruct the passage of a piece of legislation. Senate rules dictate that 60 US Senators out of the 100 must vote to end a filibuster and force a vote. This holds true when it comes to gun reform legislation, and this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
What’s more, too many American politicians are uninterested in comparing American public policy with laws in other wealthy nations, or showing any concern about America’s reputation in the wider world.
Change to American gun laws is most likely to happen at the state level.
In Texas, the current governor signed into law last year seven pieces of legislation loosening restrictions of gun-rights now and into the future (one new law “exempts” Texas from potential federal restrictions).
If you dive deep into the data, you find states controlled by Democrats are more likely to enact gun restrictions after mass shootings, and states controlled by Republicans are more likely to loosen gun controls.
Given the Republican party is the dominant party at the state level (with 28 of the 50 state governorships), and Congressional Republicans can easily block legislation at the federal level, this most recent tragedy will sadly lead to more inaction on gun reform. ■
Brendan O’Connor is an associate professor of American politics at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and Daniel Cooper is a lecturer at Griffith University ■
The above was first published in The Conversation and is republished with permission