With the increasing distribution of vaccines, we are finally starting to stumble out of the coronavirus pandemic. But mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and Atlanta remind us that, long after COVID-19 is gone, the epidemic of gun violence will still be with us because of the equivalent of the anti-maskers — irrational, extremist Republican politicians who oppose nearly all gun regulations. The Republican position is enraging: They want to make voting hard and gun ownership easy.
Although COVID-19 deaths dwarfed gun deaths last year, gun violence increased. A survey of 34 large U.S. cities found a 30 percent increase in homicides last year — and more than 70 percent of homicides in the United States involve a gun. (The comparable figure for England and Wales, which have strict gun control laws, is 3 percent.) Guns are responsible for even more suicides than murders. The Gun Violence Archive reports all gun-related deaths in 2020 totaled 43,536 — a horrific figure that would not be considered normal or acceptable in any other high-income country.
The one category of gun violence that actually declined in 2020 was mass shootings after the two worst years on record. But even that trend is now changing for the worse. Last week, a gunman armed with a 9 mm handgun he had purchased just hours before his rampage killed eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area. Then, on Monday, a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder supermarket.
No other industrialized nation has gun violence at anywhere close to these levels. Our rate of firearm homicides (based on figures from 2012) is nearly six times Canada’s, nearly 16 times Germany’s and more than 21 times Australia’s. It’s not that the United States has a higher crime rate in general; our rates of property crime are pretty similar to Western Europe’s. But we have a much higher rate of lethal violence because we have a much higher rate of gun ownership.
Americans are estimated to own nearly half of the 857 million civilian-held guns in the world. The United States has 120 civilian firearms per 100 people — i.e., more guns than people. That’s by far the highest rate of any country. (Yemen is No. 2 with 52.8 guns per 100 people.) The rate in India is 5.3, in the U.K. 4.6, in South Korea just 0.2.
This is an intolerable situation, and one that we don’t have to tolerate. Before a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2008 written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court had never found that the Second Amendment — written to protect “well-regulated” state militias — conferred an individual right of gun ownership. But even the court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller states that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited” — “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on … laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
There is, in short, no legal prohibition — unless the even more conservative Supreme Court now chooses to impose one — on the kind of commonsense gun regulations that are backed by most Americans. A 2019 survey showed overwhelming support for preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and banning assault weapons. There was a reduction in support for gun control in 2020 because there were fewer high-profile mass shootings, but in a Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans — and even
26 percent of gun owners — still said they favored stricter gun laws.
The problem is the Republican Party, which on this issue has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association. The Onion accurately captured its ethos in a headline that it keeps running after mass shootings: “ ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The only Republican response is “thoughts and prayers.” Sorry, we need more than that.
The House just passed two popular pieces of gun legislation that would close existing loopholes. One bill would extend the amount of time the FBI has to conduct background checks on gun buyers. The other would require background checks for gun sales done privately or at gun shows. But almost no Republicans voted for these measures (one of the bills had eight GOP votes, the other two), and they have no chance of passage in the Senate unless Democrats curb or abolish the filibuster.
The GOP has not always been so doctrinaire. The 1993 Brady Act establishing a nationwide background check for gun buyers received 54 Republican votes in the House and 16 in the Senate. But the story on guns is the same as on every other issue from voting rights to global warming to COVID-19: The GOP is becoming more right wing over time. The cost of its extremism is being paid in American lives. How many more have to die before the GOP rethinks its opposition to gun control?