Opinionista John Hinshaw 24 March 2021

Another day, another US mass shooting: A toxic by-product of our skewed electoral system

Most of us Americans are as horrified as you would be by mass shootings. Large majorities of Americans want sensible gun control laws that restrict military-grade weaponry. But the National Rifle Association and its rightwing allies have disproportionate political power because of the institutions in the US that encourage minority power.

The US is reeling from yet another mass shooting. A gunman in Boulder, Colorado used a military-grade assault rifle to commit mass murder in a supermarket. A few days before, an allegedly sexually repressed (and presumably racist) young man shot and killed eight people, mostly women, mostly of Asian descent, in Atlanta, Georgia. The police detained for two hours the Hispanic husband of one of the victims even as other witnesses and victims begged the police to let him see his dying wife.

The scenes are horrific and symptomatic of something deeply dysfunctional in the political culture. It is worth observing that no other rich country experiences mass shootings as a routine occurrence. Most of us Americans are as horrified as you would be by mass shootings. Large majorities of Americans want sensible gun control laws that restrict military-grade weaponry to people who are on the do-not-fly list or have a history of mental illness or domestic abuse. We look with envy at countries that require extensive training and testing before one can buy a gun.

The issue is that a vocal and zealous minority blocks reform at every turn. At issue is the Second Amendment to the Constitution — or really how an extreme interpretation of it became sacrosanct.

The US was born in war and revolution, and as a white settler society in the business of owning slaves and robbing the indigenous of their lands, it is not surprising that gun ownership was widespread (at least among whites) and enshrined in the Constitution. The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Today, the “shall not be infringed” part has won the day, with the courts taking the view that most regulation of guns, ammunition and so on, is suspect. This interpretation is pretty recent, however, with the National Rifle Association (or NRA as it is better known) supporting many gun-control laws until 1977.

For instance, in the late 1960s, Black Panther Party activists worried about police violence led to the Panthers openly carrying rifles and shotguns (as was then legal in California); the NRA and then-Governor Ronald Reagan wasted no time in passing gun-control legislation. Then in 1977, a group of right-wing absolutists took control of the NRA and became an integral part of the New Right coalition, and Reagan became president in 1981.

The NRA and this interpretation of the Second Amendment have disproportionate political power because of some of the institutions in the US that encourage minority power. Rural and white states (such as South Dakota) have the same number of senators as large and diverse states (like California, which is dozens of times larger). Partly because of that fact, the right has been successful in getting numerous judges appointed to the courts who uphold this interpretation. The Supreme Court can strike down popular laws, should laws get past the Senate.

One of the seeming contradictions of American political life is that even most gun owners support the “well regulated” part of the Second Amendment. Yet in election after election, only pro-gun absolutists can be elected as Republicans (who now dominate rural, white voters).

In large part, the issue is one of fear, which is breeding extremism. Republicans have turned mask-wearing (and vaccines) into a violation of freedom. A common solution proposed by them for school shootings is to arm teachers or hire armed security guards as the only cure for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. A sign of Americans’ desperation (or lunacy) is that you can buy bullet-proof backpacks so school kids have that extra element of protection when fleeing a shooter.

Because Americans are afraid, mostly of one another, guns are increasingly popular. A friend told me that many common grades of ammunition have quintupled in price over the past year.

Of course, things that can’t go on forever, usually don’t. When a sizeable majority of the country wants change in a democracy, it seems reasonable to expect it will come. But change is often slow in coming.

Many of the fights around gun control, like the thousand or so Americans killed annually by our police, revolve around race and democracy. The US has only truly been a country of “one person, one vote,” for 55 years. And during that time, there has been furious (and often violent) resistance to the idea that America is not a white man’s country. Guns are one aspect of that resistance to the creation of a racially and ethnically diverse democracy.

So in Georgia, it is legal to buy an assault rifle on the same day, but not to register and vote on the same day. But change is coming to Georgia and the US. In January, Georgians elected a young Jewish filmmaker and an African-American pastor as senators. Their election tipped control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Change is hard, to be sure, but change is surely coming. DM

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