The gunning down of eight people in Indianapolis at a FedEx complex, including four members of the Sikh community, has sent shockwaves once again in a country that is reeling from a spate of gun violence, especially in the last year. The attack was the work of a lone gunman, ostensibly mentally unstable but someone who had managed to procure two assault rifles in July and September last year in spite of a hand gun seized from him by authorities; and his own mother alerting officials of her son’s mental state.
The April 15 mowing down of innocents – the motives of which are unknown — was on the eve of the country observing the 14th anniversary of a deadly shooting at the Virginia Tech college campus where a lone gunman killed 32 students and professors before taking his own life. That horrific incident at Blacksburg, Virginia, on April 16, 2007, claimed the lives of an engineering professor from Tamil Nadu and a young female graduate student hailing from Mumbai. The final-year undergraduate student of South Korean nationality who went on the campus rampage and took his own life was also said to be mentally unstable.
Responding to the ghastly events of the last few weeks, President Joseph Biden has called it variously a national and an international embarrassment. But more than this it would appear that it is a crying shame to see a country lose nearly 39,000 lives every year as a result of guns and other assorted weapons and rifles. According to statistics provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there were 7,103 single bias incidents involving 8,552 victims — 58 per cent targeted because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry bias; 20 per cent on account of a religious bias; and 17 per cent victimised on account of a bias toward sexual orientation. Statistics also show that nearly 49 per cent of victims of hate crime are African Americans, followed by Hispanics/Latinos and Asian-Americans.
Of the total gun-related deaths, a staggering 24,000 are a result of suicide; homicides account for 14,400 deaths and about 1,300 fall under the category of accidents and war casualties. In all these figure what has come to attract attention is the relative free availability of weapons, from handguns to assault weapons, in the price range of $200 to $1,500. Shocking still is the ease with which potential killers are able to have an assortment of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Biden has long been an advocate of stricter gun control laws, as have presidents before him.
But the problem has always been that Congress has been unable to act on account of strong opposition from conservatives, the pro-gun lobby, and champions of the Second Amendment. For the most part their adage has been: Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People.
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The Biden White House is pushing for legislation that will reduce the spread of so-called ghost guns, which are primarily made at homes using material bought online but without tracing serial numbers. The legislation will insist on serial numbers to parts and on background checks to those seeking these as opposed to a check only at the time of wanting a gun from a licensed store. Biden has also proposed to tighten laws that would make it difficult for a person to easily convert a handgun into an assault weapon. And keeping an eye on homicides and suicides, the White House is also pushing for ‘Red Flag’ laws that would allow law enforcement agencies and family members to alert courts to restrain people from access to weapons if deemed a danger to themselves or to others.
In the past too there have been proposals to tighten the verification methods prior to purchase of a weapon. According to existing laws, any time a weapon is purchased from a federally licensed gun dealer the name of the purchaser has to go through a database that would check for criminal and mental health records provided by various agencies, including state and federal courts. This apart some states have additional requirements on prohibition of gun ownership by individuals who have been involved in drug offences, violent crimes and juvenile offences.
But what has been emphasised for a long time by gun control advocates and even presidents is that the background checks would have to be “universal”, for the simple reason that an estimated 40 per cent of the firearms purchased are not from licensed dealers but from street corners, internet, gun shows and from second-hand sources like friends. This legal loophole will have to be plugged, it is maintained. No one knows how many guns are out there in America, one figure being in the upwards of 100 million.
The pro-gun lobbies are powerful political forces that have made their presence known at local, state and federal election and have legally channelled funds to Democrats as well as Republicans to make sure that none of the laws are diluted. Much of this is in the name of the Second Amendment. The National Rifle Association, which has been around since 1871 and boasts of a membership of close to five million, and the Gun Owners of America, which was founded in the mid-1970s and says it has a membership of between two to three million, have been at the forefront of any attempt to tighten existing laws including initial screenings. In fact the pro-gun lobby even grades American presidential elections between A and F on where they stand on guns.
Biden faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill for two reasons. First, despite his hardline conservative views, President Donald Trump waffled on the guns front — once chiding lawmakers that they did not have the guts to stand up to the NRA and on another occasion glorifying guns by saying that if only teachers and coaches were provided with weapons there would not be shootings on school campuses. This is very reminiscent of the American sitcom All In The Family where the good-natured middle-class pro-gun enthusiast Archie Bunker has a solution to hijacking: issue weapons to passengers and collect upon arrival… just in case there is an incident midair.
Second, Biden’s legislative agenda is already packed: the $2 trillion COVID rescue package aside, the administration has put forth a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal; federal enhancement of voting rights; the slavery reparations bill. Democrats in the Senate and the White House know that every one of these measures faces an uphill battle in the upper chamber where the Democrats do not have the magic number of 60 to push legislations for a vote; and right now nothing of a bipartisanship is even barely visible. Biden also knows that for every one of these high stakes bill, cutting and running in the name of political expediency or compromise is not an option.
A former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.