Disarming America’s gun lobby

Support for stricter gun controls in the US has never been higher. The usual political barriers to reform remain, but campaigners have a new trick up their sleeve, says Matthew Partridge.

What’s going on?

Six weeks on from the school shootings in a Florida high school, in which 17 people (mostly teenage pupils) were killed by a teenage gunman using an assault rifle, political pressure continues to build on Congress to tighten America’s gun laws. On 14 March schoolchildren across the US walked out of school to call for new controls. At the same time, support for anti-gun groups has grown. Americans are “outraged by their country’s mass shooting epidemic” and “appear to be organising at an unprecedented rate” to put a stop to it, says Tom McCarthy in The Guardian.

What do the current laws say?

You have to be over 18 to buy a shotgun or rifle and over 21 to own any other firearm. Apart from fully automatic weapons (that is, machine guns), almost every other kind of weapon is legal, including semi-automatic assault rifles (although these are banned in California). Most other gun laws are decided at the state and local level, although states are not allowed to ban weapons outright due to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which defends the right of the people to bear arms. Most states allow some form of concealed carry (you can carry in public provided it is concealed) or open carry (you can carry it openly). In theory, a system of background checks exists to prevent fugitives, violent felons and the mentally ill from buying weapons. However, it is largely seen as ineffective, and can in any case be bypassed by buying a gun privately at a gun show (the “gun-show” loophole).

What is the economic impact of guns?

According to the NSSF, the US gun industry’s trade body, 141,500 people were involved in making, selling or distributing guns in the US last year. If you include related industries, such as firing ranges, more than 300,000 people depend on the industry for their employment. Total gun sales in 2016 came to $9.87bn, and the wider industry has an estimated economic impact of $51.3bn, and pays more than $7.4bn in business and excise taxes. That said, the costs of gun violence amount to $45bn a year, if you count both hospital charges and lost wages, according to a 2017 study by Faiz Ghani of John Hopkins University.

What do Americans want?

It’s an emotive, divisive issue in the US. The gun industry argues that “guns don’t kill people, people do” – the view being that criminals would obtain guns anyway, and that gun ownership is a legitimate form of self-defence. The quantity of guns at large (according to the US Congressional Research Service, there are roughly 105 guns for every 100 Americans, although an estimated 3% of owners account for half the guns in circulation) also presents practical hurdles to an outright ban, even if most Americans backed one (which they don’t). But Americans do seem to want tighter rules. A Politico poll found that support for stricter gun laws among registered voters was 68%, while another, from Quinnipiac, found that 97% support universal background checks, 83% back mandatory waiting periods and 67% would ban assault rifles.

How much power does the NRA have?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) represents around a fifth of gun owners (according to Pew Research Center), and has been very successful at heading off past efforts to tighten gun laws, notes the Financial Times. The NRA was founded in 1871, but became far more politically active in the late 1960s and 1970s. It spends around $250m a year, $3m of which goes directly on influencing gun policy, vastly outstripping spending by gun-control lobbyists. More than half of politicians in Congress today (307 out of 535) have received funds from the NRA, notes CNN, a figure which skews heavily towards the Republicans.

So there will be new laws?

Unlikely. Legislation at the national level will require the support of both Houses of Congress, which are currently controlled by Republicans – who mostly oppose gun control. Indeed, notes Business Insider, the 81 members of Congress who have attracted the most NRA funding over their careers are all Republicans. President Donald Trump initially signalled his backing for more restrictions, promising to use his authority to ban bump stocks (an attachment that enables a semi-automatic rifle to fire faster) and endorsing a “beautiful” bill that would expand background checks and place more restrictions on who can buy guns. However, he quickly changed his position following widespread criticism from Republicans. And even if the Democrats take charge of both houses in November’s mid-term elections, they too are wary of upsetting voters who oppose gun controls.

So it’ll be business as usual then?

Not necessarily, notes the Financial Times. “With the US deeply split on gun control, the NRA now commands less respect and faces a new challenge” –  from business and investors. Several chains of field-sports and sporting-goods shops, such as LLBean, are to stop selling guns to those under 21; others have stopped selling assault rifles completely. Other firms – including United Airlines and car rental groups Avis and Hertz – have ended discount schemes for NRA members. And big asset managers such as BlackRock – which manages over $6trn – are looking into ways to “divest” out of gun stocks to appeal to investors who want only to invest in socially responsible firms. BlackRock is even considering custom indices that exclude gun makers and retailers. The time has come to try something new, says Joe Nocera on Bloomberg View – “to try to force change by pressuring the companies that make the guns that mass shooters use. It might just work.”