President Obama delivered a powerful speech after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Thursday, which left 10 people dead and at least seven wounded. He lamented the nation’s failure to pass gun legislation and vowed to remind us of it with each successive massacre. “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction,” the president said.
But the nation has not been inactive on gun legislation. In recent years, many states have passed laws that make firearms easier to get, carry and use. Georgia passed its so-called “guns everywhere” bill last year, allowing people to carry firearms in restaurants and bars, government buildings and airports – even in churches, pending pastors’ approval. Less than a month after the massive biker brawl in Waco – in which nine people were killed, 18 were wounded and more than 100 firearms were recovered at the scene – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed open-carry and campus-carry laws that allow licensed handgun owners to visibly tote weapons in most places and concealed handguns in university buildings. And 23 states have adopted “stand your ground” laws, giving citizens broad leeway to wield their firearms on the street if they so much as feel a threat of bodily harm.
Local officials and school districts have taken action, too. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many schools installed armed guards and, in some cases, supplemented them with armed and trained teachers and staff.
Many of these changes have come at the behest of the National Rifle Association, which says being armed is the best protection against unexpected attacks. The NRA called Georgia’s law the “most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent history.” Pushing for the Texas campus-carry law this year, the NRA insisted that gun owners, previously barred from carrying their weapons on Texas campuses, were “rendered defenseless against criminals.”
Obama’s frustration mounts with the fact that, despite a solid majority of Americans favoring stronger gun regulations, no federal gun-control legislation has passed Congress. Efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers – an idea supported by more than 90 percent of Americans – have been successfully rebuffed by the NRA and its supporters in Congress.
Some states have passed legislation that strengthens gun regulations. In the year after the Sandy Hook shooting, 21 states and D.C. passed laws making it “harder for people to own guns, carry them in public, and enhanced the government’s ability to track guns,” Mother Jones reported. But the effect of those laws is limited without federal action to answer the nationwide expansion of guns. But at the federal level, our elected leaders do not heed the will of the majority, and instead surrender to a vocal minority of Americans who speak forcefully and angrily – and often intimidatingly – in favor of an absolute right of gun ownership. The passion of this minority has not been matched by the silent majority.
To force federal legislators to act on gun control action in the face of the well-funded and well-organized NRA, exceptional passion is called for. The silent majority must prioritize gun control at the polls, electing leaders who commit to gun control legislation and removing those who surrender to the NRA in order to earn the gun lobby’s coveted A+ rating. This needs to happen at the state level, too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earned the NRA’s A+ rating in part by rejecting more extensive background checks for gun buyers in the state, against the will of the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters. But voters never made him pay for that decision, reelecting Walker in 2014.
The NRA has professed that, by resisting gun-control measures, it is defending freedom. But in fact, the proliferation of campus-carry, stand your ground and “guns everywhere” laws is a grave threat to our freedom. We fear strangers will misinterpret our advances or demeanor as threats. We fear gun owners will be emboldened to shoot first and ask questions later. We feel less secure in public, and less free to approach, negotiate or simply coexist with strangers.
The NRA claims that gun ownership offers the prospect of living without fear; but the armed society it envisions brings the prospect of constant fear. At best, the NRA world is a tense, ever-present standoff between armed citizens.
Thanks to proliferating guns, we fear gunfire at the mall, in church, at a restaurant, in a college classroom — or simply walking down the street. No place is safe. Guns rights advocates make this point to justify being armed. “We live in an age when preparing to survive whatever comes our way is simply a fact of life or death,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre declared in a letter to members last year. Arming yourself is “simply the most prudent way to survive.” In LaPierre’s statement, we see the self-fulfilling nature of the NRA’s doomsday prophecies. That view ensures that our society becomes progressively more dangerous and deadly, and ordinary interactions become more unpredictable — so that, indeed, we all worry about survival.
But mere survival is not freedom. Freedom involves thriving. A thriving democracy, as our Founding Fathers envisioned it, requires openness and interaction, the free mixing of people from diverse backgrounds, races and strata of society, in any and all public settings. Proliferating guns, and the laws that fuel our armed society, corrode that.
The NRA’s vision of an armed society has been realized by the action of elected officials and the vocal minority of voters who support them. To turn the tide, supporters of gun control must act, too. Voters must back candidates who prioritize universal background checks on all firearm transactions, harsh penalties for illegal gun possession and gun trafficking, and a much stronger and well-funded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency that tracks the flow of illegal guns. We must also support state and local officials who diminish the devastating influence of guns in the public sphere, by scaling back open-carry, campus-carry and stand your ground laws.
The president’s anger is justified. The American public should be similarly possessed when it sees its republic at risk.