Australians often look back on the reduction in gun violence in Australia after the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, and ask, “Why do Americans put up with their regular gun violence? Why don’t they just see sense and do what we did?”
It’s just not that easy. The problems facing the US over gun control issues are much more complex.
Because of the circumstances in which America was born – a revolution against a tyrannical king in England – Americans have a fear and loathing of centralised power.
The first version of the American Constitution (called the ‘Articles of Confederation’) in 1781 didn’t even allow the federal government to levy taxes, and this had to be changed eight years later.
The American states have very strong rights relative to the federal government, and they can and often do take their federal government to the Supreme Court to block federal legislation and regulations.
Americans view their own government as something they may one day have to overthrow, so the right to own guns was enshrined in their constitution.
The obsession that many Americans have with the idea of taking up arms against the state is something we have a hard time comprehending.
The different states and cities have differences between them that are hard to imagine here. The attitudes of a suburbanite in San Francisco will be very different to someone in rural Alaska where killing and carving up your own moose is commonplace.
A city like New Orleans may as well be in another country compared to Montana, where, if there’s an intruder on your ranch, you’d better be able to fix the problem yourself, because you may be waiting a long time for the sheriff to arrive.
As one American friend said to me, “The thing you have to understand is that America is not one country. It’s fifty different countries.”
Because of these differences, it’s hard to get social cohesion in the US. John Howard got a rapid consensus on gun control; no US president ever has, and if something needs a constitutional amendment, three quarters of the states have to ratify the amendment. Thirteen states can block the will of the other thirty seven.
The Congressional Research Service claims are already 300 million privately-owned guns in the US: about one for every man woman and child.
About thirty to forty percent of households have at least one gun, and the average gun-owning household allegedly owns eight guns, and one in five gun-owning households has ten or more guns.
These households will fight tooth and nail against any federal attempt to remove their guns. Among rural households, six in ten have a gun.
The National Rifle Association has a $250 million annual budget. It regularly donates large sums to state and federal political candidates in the US, and endorses candidates according to their views on gun control.
If a candidate is regarded an ‘anti-gun’ then the NRA will donate money to their opponents and marshal votes against them.
By contrast, lobby groups in Australia have little influence in preselection contests. There is no pro-gun-control lobby group in the US with the same clout and money as the NRA.
Little can really be achieved in the US, and to Australian eyes, America looks like a basket case. Everybody will offer ‘thoughts and prayers’, there will be candlelit vigils, and nothing will change.
Richard Snow is a former government economist who has taught economics at Latrobe University. He is a postgraduate student in international relations.