December 8, 2022

‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody:’ A Republican affair with money, guns & mass death

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” said then-candidate Donald Trump addressing Iowans gathered at a Christian College. “It’s, like, incredible,” he concluded.

Only in America would a candidate to the highest civic post be allowed to say the wrong words, at the wrong time, considering the still recent mass shooting of 2015 in San Bernardino (14 dead, 24 injured), not to mention the massacres of 2009 in Fort Hood (14 dead, 32 injured), and Columbine in 1999 (13 dead, 24 injured), which should continue to inspire anyone speaking publicly to exercise sensitivity toward gun violence.

Nevertheless, Trump’s rhetoric and promises appealed to the electorate and he became president. His was an evasive administration, despite the gravity of events such as the Las Vegas and Parkland mass shootings of 2017 and ’18, and a violent White nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2018.

Not a surprise then that four years later, when Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Biden, heavily armed militia groups and fanatics attacked the U.S. Capitol, hoping to keep Trump in power by force. An insurrection was the crowning of the gun-permissive climate of the country.

Donald Trump’s supporters attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, inspired by the former-president’s lies about the 2020 presidential election. Photo by Lev Radin.

Now, only in the United States, an epidemic of gun violence takes place consistently.

How to explain the strong presence of guns in the U.S. today?

“Loaded: a disarming history of the Second amendment,” by historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, attributes the American guns affair to historical and socioeconomic reasons.

Historically, guns and armed militia were important not only for obtaining independence but preserving it thereafter. The importance of people bearing arms in militia was recognized by the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution’s Second Amendment reads:

Trump supporters fly Confederate gun flags while attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Photo by Lav Redin.

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to do a security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 “Not only the militias protected the young country from tyrants like King George III but also searched for runaway slaves and seized land from Native Americans often by slaughter,” Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.

Furthermore, thanks to guns, the U.S. expanded its territory vastly: “Without guns, there would be no West,” the late Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson once said.  

In fact, America’s conquest of the West started very early. Armed settlers traversed the Appalachian-Allegheny mountains, dominated or killed Natives and misappropriated their land.

Historic figure and richest President until Trump, George Washington, made his fortune largely out of such lands.

The U.S. Army, officially created in 1784, continued enlarging the territory.

Another attribution of the militia, according to a North Carolina document of 1860, was the regular visit to the districts and housing areas of enslaved Africans in the U.S., with the goal of being “diligent in apprehending all runaway Negroes.”

Moreover, a few gun users, former militia members, benignly reviewed by history, turned into folk heroes: Jesse James, the Robin Hood of his time, and frontiersmen Daniel Boone and David Crockett, conquerors of Native American and Mexican lands by force.

Dunbar-Ortiz considers early militias at the outset of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and private pro-gun entities, among them the influential National Rifle Association.

Rooted in history, specifically the survivors (approximately 2.8 million people) of conflicts in and invasions of Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, there exists another strong pro-gun segment. “A veteran is more than twice as likely as a nonveteran to own one or more guns.”

The socioeconomic factor, according to Dunbar-Ortiz, hit a group of uneducated Americans; for example, the coal miners in rural West Virginia, who due to changing times – environmental regulations, industrial mechanization – lost their jobs. They blame Liberals.

These embittered Americans are ready to resist that one more thing being taken from them, their guns. They’re the “patriots” whose guns could help the country one day. Only “from my cold dead hands” will guns be taken away. (Refer to the insert)

The vast majority of Americans want common sense gun reform.
Photo by Chip Vincent on Unsplash

Now, the U.S. experiences an epidemic of mass killings that takes place in worship sanctuaries, schools, minorities’ neighborhoods – barbaric by any standards, yet insufficient to appeal to the vast majority of Republican legislators.

Why aren’t effective gun policies implemented?

“It’s appalling to me anytime there is a shooting, the left will jump on that as a way to advance an agenda to remove our rights to bear arms. We saw Lenin do the same thing in Russia. We saw Hitler do the same thing in Germany in the ‘30s. Where does it stop? Where do the tyrants stop infringing upon our rights?”

Those are words of Pennsylvanian GOP State Senator and now candidate for governor Doug Mastriano, who was subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee for his presence and involvement in the attack on the Capitol. The embattled Mastriano is running against Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Pennsylvania is among the States with highest number of gun owners – four out of ten adults. Pennsylvania is also the place where, on average, someone is shot every two hours –according to “CeaseFirePA,” a pro gun-regulation nonprofit.

Mastriano’s posture is typical of a sector of the population, as well as many elected officials in Washington. While tirelessly referring to the Second Amendment, they ignore the emphatic Constitution Preamble on “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life…”

The Second Amendment made sense 246 years ago, when common citizens had in their hands the country’s defense from external danger. But today there is an exclusive professional military force for that.

The giant body of more than 1.4 million people constituting the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, National Guard headcount is kept vigilant on a three-quarters of a trillion dollars budget, at taxpayers’ expense. This is not mentioned in pro Second Amendment arguments.

Messages like Mastriano’s create the wrong idea that regulation equals gun confiscation, it is “all or nothing” – no room for concession, no space for mature analysis of the dangerous time, the urgency of a rational strategy.

However, in 2017, 65-89% of Americans saw the need for gun control – Pew Report found out – by various means: banning gun sales to mentally ill people, creating a federal database to track all gun sales, requiring background checks for all gun sales, banning assault style weapons, and banning high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. (See graph below)

So, that being the will of Americans, why has it not materialized in efficacious gun policies and laws? The answer is found in factors such as the power of this highly profitable business, which, although controversial, remains untouchable thanks to strong lobbying and the availability of guns in the marketplace: 400 million guns in a nation of 330 million people.

The firearm and ammunition industry in the U.S. jumped from $19.1 billion in 2008 to $70.52 billion by 2021— a 269 % increase — according to a recent report of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

In 2021, Americans bought 19.9 million guns, 12.5% less than the record number of 2020, according to reporting by Forbes.  

Then there is the NRA, the 151-year-old organization, a powerhouse advocating for gun rights. The NRA revenues from all sources in 2021 was $282 million, 14% lower than the record number of 2020, according to Everytown.org.

Although the organization declared bankruptcy in 2021, facing allegations that its executives mismanaged funds and used tens of millions of dollars on personal expenditures, the NRA is still extraordinarily influential in U.S. politics.

In “Ricochet, Confessions of a gun lobbyist” Richard Feldman wrote: “During almost 20 years involvement with the National Rifle Association… my image of the organization had radically changed. Once, I would naively view the association as the resourceful advocate of citizens Second Amendment warranties to keep and ‘bear arms’ but I have been forced to recognize that despite its sacrosanct facade the NRA is actually a cynical mercenary political cult.”

In fact, the degree of insensitivity is exemplified by the fact that the colossal NRA convention was scheduled for May 27 in Houston. Just 280 miles west of Houston, on May 24, the massacre of Uvalde, Texas took place. For the NRA, it was business as usual, the event went on as scheduled, regardless of the mass shooting deaths of 19 children and two teachers.

Since 2010, more than $148 million of NRA funds were channeled to federal elections, favoring almost exclusively Republican candidates; about $91 was spent trying to defeat candidates, namely Hillary Clinton: $19.8, Biden: $12 million, and Obama: $10 million, the Boston Globe reported.

Among the top destinations of NRA funds in the Senate are: Mitt Romney of Utah, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Tom Tillis of North Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, respectively, in millions, $13.6, $7.0, $4.6, $4.4, and $3.3.

A recent Allentown gun show charged $7 admission, $6 with this coupon. Photo from “The Key”

Then there is the supply and demand factor. Guns and accessories can be acquired at gun stores, at gun shows or online. Even small towns have a gun store: Nazareth, Pennsylvania, with a population of about 6,000, is an example. Gun shows are regularly held in various places – Allentown has hosted such shows for years.

Insufficient gun regulation is the fourth factor.

Gun regulation in the U.S.

U.S. States have autonomy to implement their own laws and can even nullify federal laws, as Alaska, Idaho and Kansas did – although this might not be everlasting.

The Federal Gun Control Act of 1966 prohibits individuals under age 18, convicted criminals, the mentally disabled, dishonorably discharged military personnel and other high-risk individuals from purchasing firearms.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 mandated background checks for all unlicensed individuals purchasing a firearm from a federally authorized dealer.

At times, the Supreme Court reverses certain gun laws, as it did in 2008 with the Washington, D.C. law banning handguns.

After the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2016, President Obama’s regulation established that firearm dealers at gun shows or online must obtain federal licenses and conduct background checks.

In 2018, President Trump responded to the Las Vegas and Parkland mass shootings by banning bump stocks, the attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire in sustained, rapid bursts, at a rate approaching that of automatic weapons. A Federal Court halted the ban in 2021.

The lack of a uniform gun regulation in the country is exemplified by two states.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has minimal restrictions to buy and keep a gun. The state ranks 15th in Gun Law Strength, and in a year, on average, suffers 1,628 deaths by guns, according to Everytown.org. 

– No requirements for license or permit to purchase, no waiting period, no training before or after purchase, no limit on the number of guns to purchase at one time, no background checks, virtually no regulations on the sale of ammunition

-Must be 18 to purchase a long gun (rifle, shot gun, semi-automatic rifle) and 21 to purchase a handgun

-Once purchased, guns can be carried openly (on hip, or across shoulder) without any additional license; to carry concealed in the state (or to carry openly or concealed in the city of Philadelphia) a concealed carry license is required and this is issued by the county sheriff (the Police Department in Philadelphia). The permit requires an application, payment of a fee, a background check, and provision of two non-family member references, but doesn’t require safety training, proficiency standards, nor proficiency training.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts has strong restrictions to buy and keep a gun. The state ranks fourth in the Gun Law Strength, and in a year, on average, suffers 255 deaths by guns, according to Everytown.org. 

-Long gun and handgun ownership requires a state license, owners license, license for open and concealed carry, and background checks for private sales.

-Red Flag laws, and restrictions on magazine capacity and National Firearm Act weapons exist in the state.

Gun regulation abroad

A gun buyer in the U.S. faces minimal requirements: pass an instant background check that considers criminal convictions, domestic violence and immigration status.

Gun laws prevent gun deaths.

What about other countries? Two cases are presented. (from “How to Buy a Gun in 15 Countries,” New York Times, March 2, 2018).

Canada

-The buyer must prove practice at an approved shooting club or range or show they are a gun collector.

For any gun, buyers must complete a safety course and pass both a written and a practical test.

-Provide two references. 

Apply for a permit and wait 28 days before processing begins.

Pass a background check that considers criminal record, mental health, addiction and domestic violence history.

Once meeting these requirements, Canadians can buy a gun.

After handgun purchase, buyers must register the weapon with the police before taking it home.

Japan

-Buyer must take a firearm class and pass a written exam, which is held up to three times a year.

-Get a doctor’s note saying buyer is mentally fit and does not have a history of drug abuse.

-Apply for a permit to take fire arm training, which may take up to a month.

-Describe in a police interview why the gun is needed.

-Pass a review of criminal history, gun possession record, employment, involvement with organized crime groups, personal debt and relationships with friends, family, and neighbors.

-Apply for a gunpowder permit.

-Take a one-day training class and pass a firing test.

-Obtain a certificate from a gun dealer describing the gun desired.

-If gun is for hunting, apply for a hunting license.

-Buy a gun safe and an ammunition locker that meet safety regulations.

-Allow the police to inspect the gun storage.

-Pass an additional background review.

What is the outcome of gun regulation?

Among 73 countries, the U.S. ranked 10th in gun deaths in 2021, Canada 32nd and Japan 70th. The number of deaths per 10-million, were 1221 in the U.S., 205 in Canada, and 6 in Japan.

Gun laws prevent gun deaths.

In light of the Uvalde massacre – and more than 60 mass shootings in the U.S. since – gun regulation is under consideration.

Being that 2022 is an election year, the extent of such regulation remains to be seen.

Emotional speech from Charlton Heston, then-president of the NRA, at the organization’s 2000 convention in Charlotte, North Carolina*    

“Every time our country stands in the path of danger, an instinct seems to summon her finest first — those who truly understand her. When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril, it’s always the patriots who first hear the call.
When loss of liberty is looming, as it is now, the siren sounds first in the hearts of freedom’s vanguard. The smoke in the air of our Concord bridges and Pearl Harbors is always smelled first by the farmers, who come from their simple homes to find the fire, and fight, because they know that sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel — something that gives the most common man the most uncommon of freedoms. When ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument, that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty. That’s why those five words issue an irresistible call to us all, and we muster. So — so, as, ah, we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed — and especially for you, Mister Gore – From my cold dead hands!”

*It’s the typical NRA rhetoric, of how essential is for the common citizen, a patriot, to bear arms, ready to defend the country.

Jesus Zaldivar

Jesus Zaldivar, contributor to The Commuter, is a Media Production student at NCC. Previously, he conducted biomedical / environmental research in South America, Europe and six states in the U.S. (Contact: jesus.zaldivar@student.northampton.edu)

View all posts by Jesus Zaldivar →
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