Chicago - Gun control received a backhanded boost in the USA on Tuesday, in spite of a specific law to ban assault and military style weapons being tossed out by the upper chamber of the federal legislature.
Anyone who thought a ban on assault weapons would be an easy sell after twenty children were killed by one in December would be incorrect. On Tuesday the Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, removed the language from a bill set to regulate guns. While many pundits predicted the ban would fail in the end, its failure seemed more abject than what was once expected.
Reid told reporters that the bill wouldn't even have got 40 votes in the 100-member Senate, and due to a procedural trick by Republicans, would have required 60. This isn't, however, bad news for gun control advocates, as passing more popular laws has now become easier.
Pundits will decry the cowardice of Democrats who vote against gun control measures, and accuse them of being lackeys for the National Rifle Association and other lobbyists, but there is enough evidence to indicate that a number of Democrat senators (and most Republican senators) legitimately feel an assault weapons ban is not in the interests of their constituents. While 57% of Americans favour an assault weapons ban, they are not geographically spread in order to facilitate the ban, due to the Senate having two representatives from each state, regardless of its population.
There are also technical failings within the assault weapons ban that made it easy for gun manufacturers to override, and there is scant evidence it made a difference while in action during the nineties and early 2000s.
As Alex Seitz-Wald writes for Salon, "It actually turns out that gun rights advocates are correct in noting that the category of 'assault weapons' is largely artificial, targeting firearms 'based on outward features or accessories that have little to do with the weapons' operation,' as criminologist Chris Koper et al. wrote in their official review of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban [which expired in 2004]. That study found no statistically significant impact on crime or deaths from the Clinton-era law, though it did not conclude the ban was 'a complete failure', as some gun rights absolutists falsely claim. The findings were inconclusive."
Gun show background checks
This does not, however, signal the death of gun control legislation's passage through the Senate in the near future. To the contrary, removing the most controversial part of proposed new laws make passing other more publicly popular laws more probable. There is significant public support for mandatory background checks on all gun buyers, and being able to pass this law, without the assault weapons ban attached to it, removes immense pressure from those Senators whose constituents believe they should be permitted these types of guns.
Currently, background checks are required when guns are purchased from a shop, but not a gun show or a private sale, and there is little legal dissuasion for those who purchase guns for people who are not legally permitted to own weapons – this is referred to as "straw purchases".
In an ABC/Washington Post poll from earlier this month, 91% of Americans support background checks at gun shows, and 82% support making illegal sales a federal crime. (The other question asked in the survey was about whether armed guards should be placed at schools, and is approved by the public 50%-48%, making it less popular than the assault weapons ban.)
Ninety-one percent and 82% majorities are obviously too high to be hidden through specifically drawn constituencies, and gun control advocates should be enjoying the fact that passing them now has one less constraint. Assault weapons are used in less than 2% of gun deaths, and if there is to be an attempt to significantly reduce the number of victims, these other pieces of legislation are better tools with which to do so.
In a nutshell background checks, if applied universally and effectively, will prohibit people incapable of using weapons responsibly from owning (and therefore using) them. Legislation to prohibit straw purchases will help close any loophole around background checks. Obviously, any legislation will only make a difference if it is enforced, but passing the laws must happen first. And Tuesday’s happenings present the best opportunity for such a bill to pass.
The assault weapons ban is dead. Long live gun control legislation.