Why U.S. gun reform keeps failing in the face of unspeakable tragedy

The chance of gun reform appears remote in the U.S., even though a small group has begun inter-party talks to gauge whether there are enough votes to pass limited reforms But these efforts are butting up against powerful forces: toxic partisanship, institutional inertia, and a history of failure.

Days after the Texas school shooting, U.S. Senators are taking a break. Gun control may have to wait

It's break time for the United States Senate. A 10-day recess is scheduled for members who unironically refer to their workplace as the world's greatest deliberative body.

Barring a schedule change, they'll be heading home for constituency meetings and Memorial Day barbecues and other activities that will not include passing a national gun law.

Which would represent the status quo for a group of individuals more prone to flipping hamburgers than adopting meaningful gun reform.

There was a time when so many children being executed in a Texas classroom might have spurred action. Guns have surpassed car accidents as a cause of death.

The tragedy instead risks demonstrating how stuck the country is in a blood-stained stalemate when it comes to updating national gun laws.

Debate had just started one day after Tuesday's mass-shooting and the man who ostensibly controls the Senate practically conceded defeat.

Chuck Schumer stated the truism that he needs Republican votes. He said he'll try bipartisan talks. In the next breath, he admitted he's skeptical anything will happen.

"I know this is a slim prospect. Very slim. All too slim," Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, said Wednesday.

"We've been burned so many times before."

Lawmakers aren't giving up. A small group has begun inter-party talks to gauge whether there are enough votes to pass limited reforms that enjoy widespread public support, like a red-flag law to confiscate weapons from someone deemed dangerous, as exists in some states.

But these efforts are butting up against powerful forces: toxic partisanship, institutional inertia, and a history of failure.


"The abundance of guns is so extreme…the problem is so vast, it is hard at this point to imagine what small intervention could make a difference – only a big cultural shift," says The Atlantic's David Frum on the prospect of meaningful action to address gun violence in the U.S.

Gun culture and the courts

The U.S. has about eight times more gun deaths per capita than Canada, and Canada's rate is higher than most wealthy countries.

Amid the tens of thousands of people killed by guns in the U.S. each year is a much smaller horror-inducing subset: school shootings, which killed between 15 and 182 people each year over a two-decade span.

Yet there's more than one reason gun control has been so unattainable.

Gun culture is part of it: the country has more guns than people and its stockpile of roughly 400 million firearms is more than the next 25 countries combined.

That's compounded by bitterly polarized politics where guns are an identity symbol: Republicans and country-dwellers are more than twice as likely to own firearms as city-dwellers and Democrats.

There's also the court system where conservative judges hold an increasingly expansive reading of the 1791 Second Amendment to the Constitution.

In fact, the U.S. could soon have less gun control, not more, courtesy of the Supreme Court.

While the high court's anticipated abortion ruling has generated much attention, there's also a major gun decision the high court will announce any day, with a challenge to New York State's restrictions for carrying concealed handguns.

Finally there's institutional paralysis.

The U.S. Senate: Where bills go to die

And if institutional necrosis had a home it would be the U.S. Senate, a hospice for legislation where so many bills crawl to die a slow, unheralded death.

It's the examplepar excellence of a political system that relies on cross-party cooperation and suffers stagnation in its absence.

If you lack bipartisan support, here's what it takes to pass a highly politicized bill: trifecta control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60 per cent of Senate seats.

That almost never happens. The current Senate split is 50-50 meaning Democrats voting alone can only pass certain budget bills.

WATCH | GOP pollster says Americans are fed up with gun violence:


"I gotta believe that this time it's going to be different. I gotta believe that this time something is going to happen in the U.S. Senate," says long-time pollster Frank Luntz after the Texas elementary school shooting. "Americans are fed up with gun violence."

"The conclusion is the same," Democratic Sen. Cory Booker lamented Wednesday.

"I'm not seeing any of my Republican colleagues come forward right now and say, 'Here's a plan to stop the carnage.' So this is just normal now, which is ridiculous."

The effect of that stalemate stretches beyond guns. Climate legislation died in the Senate. Paid parental leave is popular, but stalled there. A public health-care option? Ditto. A national abortion law? Same. Tax hikes on the rich? Wildly popular, but in limbo.

This chamber was the scene of gun-reform advocates' most disheartening defeat, after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn.: background-checks legislation fell a few votes shy of the 60 per cent barrier.

That was nine years ago and it's been the status quo since.

Manchin a key player

In a coincidence of history, it so happens that a co-author of that 2013 gun bill, Democrat Joe Manchin, is a pivotal player today in the stasis of the Senate.

He has insisted that he will block any attempt to soften the rules to allow a simple majority vote and it's frozen the Democrats' agenda. Including his own gun bill.

So that's how you wind up with the current scenario, where Democrats supposedly control all of Washington yet admit they may fail to do anything.

This is after U.S. gun deaths spiked during the pandemic to more than 45,000 in one year; just over half were suicides and under half were homicides.

The homicide rate surged 35 per cent from 2019 and after a lengthy lull is creeping closer to the historical highs of the early 1990s.

Gun violence is often derided in parts of the country as a big-city problem, leaving parts of red America indifferent to reform.

What's less recognized is how widespread gun violence is: Red states in fact have the highest rate of ownership and deaths from firearms.

Most academic research makes a clear link: more guns equal more violence. Not all research agrees, and some has questioned the effectiveness of past efforts to reduce supply with government-funded buyback programs.

In this maze of political dead ends there's been one recent avenue for action: the state level.

State level: Where the action is

In 2021, 27 states passed 75 gun-safety bills, including toughened background checks, according to the advocacy group founded by Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman and shooting survivor; at the same time 19 states passed 64 control-weakening laws like permitless carry.

The governor of New York now wants her state to lift the minimum age from 18 to 21 for owning AR-15 rifles; these rifles were used by young men in recent mass-shootings, including the latest in Buffalo, N.Y., and Texas.

"That person's not old enough to buy a legal drink," said Gov. Kathy Hochul.

"What happened in Buffalo, what happened … in Texas, there are three [common denominators]: The weapon was an AR-15. The perpetrator was a male and the age of the perpetrator was 18. I don't want 18-year olds to have guns."

WATCH | Beto O'Rourke calls out Texas governor at school shooting news conference:


Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for governor this year, interrupted Wednesday's news conference about the deadly elementary school shooting in the state, calling the Republican's response to the tragedy 'predictable.' O'Rourke was escorted out while members of the crowd yelled at him.

But there are limits to what a state can do and that point was hammered home in the racist shooting in Buffalo: while the gun was legally purchased, the high-capacity ammunition clip was not legal in New York and was brought across state lines.

The limits of state power will be further highlighted if the Supreme Court strikes down New York's limits on concealed-carry permits.

It's not that Americans oppose change.

Depending on the poll, and on what question you ask, gun reform is either slightly unpopular, slightly popular, or extremely popular if you're talking about limited reforms like background checks and red-flag laws. So that's what Democrats are now trying to do: persuade 10 moderate Senate Republicans to pass one of these measures.

Barring that, nothing will happen.

'You are doing nothing'

But the political spectacle will continue. A case in point came at a press conference stage where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on the verge of tears following the shooting in Uvalde.

This is the same governor who once tweeted that he was embarrassed Texans weren't buying even more guns.

His election challenger, Democrat Beto O'Rourke, heckled him at the news conference, scolding him to his face and saying: "You are doing nothing."

The Republicans on stage had O'Rourke escorted out and berated him for politicizing a sombre news conference.

The mayor of Uvalde shouted at the former congressman: "Sick son of a bitch."

The day unfolded like any other: with many American parents dropping off their kids at school, waving goodbye, news of unspeakable horror casting a shadow.

It ended with the U.S. Senate still short of a new gun law. But perhaps one day closer to a two-week break.

-With files from the Associated Press

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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