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Gun control, a recurring (and frustrating) debate after every shooting in the US

After each massacre like the one in Uvalde, Texas, the need to change legislation is revisited, but no solution is ever achieved

Tiroteos en EE UU
Protest in March 2018 at the Capitol to call for greater gun control in the United States.CHIP SOMODEVILLA (AFP)

Gun violence is such a part of American life that it has its own rules. For it to count as a mass shooting, an event must cause the death of at least four people, not counting the shooter, and the victims cannot be members of the same family. So far this year, the country has seen about 200 mass shootings.

Until this Tuesday, the most serious attack of 2022 had been perpetrated on May 14 in Buffalo, when an 18-year-old white supremacist named Payton Gendron shot 13 people in a supermarket in New York State, killing 10, all African-Americans. It has only taken 10 days to break that record. In the Texas town of Uvalde, another 18-year-old named Salvador Ramos has murdered at least 19 children, all elementary school students, and two adults. Unlike Gendron, the shooter is now dead, authorities say.

Such tragedies tend to spark a superficial rehashing of the gun control debate in a country where the right to bear one is guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The United States is home to four percent of the world’s population and almost half of the planet’s registered handguns and rifles (393 million out of a total of 857 million). Nearly every time, the same article from the satirical magazine The Onion goes viral, titled “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

Perhaps irony is the only way to deal with a recurring tragedy that lawmakers in Washington do not seem willing to stop (at least it is clear that they are not capable of doing so). After the latest massacre, a familiar ritual is expected in the Capitol. United in a collective duel that fills hours of television time, the Democrats will express their outrage, say that something like this cannot happen again and announce initiatives to curb the epidemic of armed violence. There will also be some negotiations with the Republicans most inclined to review the law. The debate will end without reaching any agreement.

Gallup’s most recent poll on the issue found that only 52% of Americans believe gun ownership laws should be toughened. In 2018, that figure was at 67%. The numbers are at their lowest since 2014.

In this country’s relentless cycle of violence, eras are measured by the events that most mark the collective subconscious. According to this reasoning, the United States is still living under the influence of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which succeeded the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. December will mark 10 years since the Sandy Hook killings, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 people. Twenty of them were children between the ages of six and seven and the rest were school employees.

That grief gave rise to a bill meant to increase gun control, which failed to win the support of 46 of the 100 members of the Senate. For such a legislative change, 60 votes in favor are necessary, due to the parliamentary obstruction maneuver known as the filibuster, which balances each party’s capacity for action to the point of paralysis. That initiative was carried out by Senators Joe Manchin III (Democrat from West Virginia) and Patrick J. Toomey (Republican from Pennsylvania).

Since then, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to monitoring violence in the country, there have been 3,500 mass shootings. Some have taken place in schools, such as the one in Newtown (Connecticut, 2012), the one in Parkland (Florida, 2017) or the one this Tuesday in Uvalde (Texas). But they have also occurred at churches in neighborhoods with an African-American majority (Charleston, South Carolina, 2015), gay nightclubs (Orlando, 2016), music festivals (Las Vegas, 2017), synagogues (Pittsburgh, 2018), supermarkets (El Paso, 2019 and Buffalo, 2022), and Asian-owned massage parlors (Atlanta, 2021). Last year’s deadliest killing spree occurred in Boulder, Colorado. It took the lives of 10 people.

Nothing seems enough for American laws to change, not even the fact that the White House’s current tenant has a history of favoring gun control. In 1994, when he was a senator from Delaware, Joe Biden sponsored a bill that banned assault weapons (like the one used by the teen in the Buffalo massacre last week) and large-capacity magazines. Bill Clinton signed it, and it was in force until 2004, when George Bush Jr. dropped it. (The measure reduced the number of mass shootings, although the number of deaths did not drop significantly.) Every time a misfortune like Tuesday’s occurs, Biden reminds us that something can be done. Last Tuesday in Buffalo he said as much to the families of the supermarket massacre victims.

That same day, New York Attorney General Letitia James recalled in a conversation with EL PAÍS that one of the biggest problems in passing legislation against weapons is that the industry is one of the country’s most powerful, and it spends millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington.

It doesn’t look like they’re going to stop. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has just released a report stating that, between 2010 and 2020, gun production has doubled every year. And the pandemic has only made things worse: with crime rates on the rise in big cities, in 2020 gun sales broke an all-time record, with 22.8 million units sold in the United States. And 2021 had the second-highest gun sales on records. Yet in another great paradox, this country has not become a safer place for it.

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