Can US Republicans Ever Support Gun Reform?

Following the El Paso and Ohio shootings last weekend, which cost a total of 29 lives altogether, US President Donald Trump admitted that “perhaps more has to be done” to prevent these attacks from becoming more frequent. Sky News produced an opinion piece claiming that nothing will change in the face of these incidents. But the more they occur, will politicians, US Republicans in particular, do anything about gun reform? And do America’s gun laws need changing?

It is easy for British journalists to approach this subject and claim that Congress must make it tougher for citizens to acquire firearms, but this attitude fails to appreciate America’s historical and constitutional attachments to the right to bear arms. Following the 1996 Dunblane massacre which led to the deaths of 16 five and six-year-olds, Britain brought in the toughest firearms legislation in the world. However, Economy states that there are 1.3 million licensed shotguns and 530,000 legally licensed firearms in the UK, proving that British law does not prohibit gun ownership altogether. Yet this country has never had a gun culture to the extent America has.

The right to bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. It guards citizens’ rights to defend themselves in case their home is invaded. Since the UK passed its own strict firearms legislation, that same right has been questioned in the UK, following farmer Tony Martin’s decision to shoot a burglar invading his Norfolk home dead in 1999. If someone burgles your house, you have a right to protect it, which is one argument for why no US government should ever rob individuals of their right to own firearms altogether.

Many Republicans disagree with background checks on individuals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was lambasted on Twitter for failing to pass the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which eight Republicans voted for in the House of Representatives before it was passed to the upper chamber. USA Today says that this legislation would prohibit most person-to-person firearm transfers unless a background check can be conducted, aiming to close a potential loophole that allows the transfer of firearms without a background check at gun shows or between individuals. Whilst this idea sounds good in principle, it could also paint the majority of sensible gun owners with the same brush as irresponsible ones.

That is not to say Republicans cannot support gun reform – they can. There is growing support among conservatives for legislation that does not rob citizens of their right to bear firearms. Following last year’s shooting in Parkland, The Washington Post discovered that 50 percent of Republican voters favour stricter gun laws. Some Republicans, such as Ivanka Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham, have proposed new ‘red-flag’ laws, which would allow family members or law enforcement to limit a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a potential threat to the public. This suggestion would allow families and the police to prevent unstable individuals from using guns as freely.

However, many Republicans find themselves at the mercy of NRA attack ads if they support any change to the law. They have too much influence, and that is thanks to the US’ weak lobbying laws. The Honest and Open Government Act of 2007 was embraced by both parties as a historic breakthrough that would prevent lawmakers swapping over to top jobs in the lobbying sector. But since the law took effect in January 2008, POLITICO found that almost half of the 352 politicians who have left Congress have since joined the influence industry.

Following Sunday’s massacre, the New York Times suggests that although the gun lobbyists still outspend gun reformers considerably, Ohio and Texas have inspired politicians to try and change this violent culture. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut wants to discuss with his Republican colleagues how they can implement sensible firearms legislation. Republican Senator Marco Rubio is willing to work with Senator Graham to support extreme-risk protection orders. Perhaps Congress is closer to reaching a compromise.

The shootings that occurred in Texas and Ohio cannot afford to be repeated again. Both incidents happened in a short space of time. The Democrats and the Republicans must reach a settlement on gun reform soon. There is no reason why conservatives cannot support adequate gun control. But two questions remain: will anything change with Senator McConnell leading the Senate Republicans? And is this party willing to challenge the NRA that lobbies them so hard? Senators Rubio and Graham have produced some good ideas here, but until more conservatives are willing to accept something needs to change, it is unlikely anything substantial will emerge from last weekend’s massacres.