Guns made America. Just ask the British. So vital were they to the nation’s founding that their place in our nascent culture was memorialised in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, just after the one that guarantees freedom of speech.
The Second Amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Of course back then, the most lethal weapon was a single shot musket that even a good militiaman needed fifteen to twenty seconds to reload.
Over the 245 years that passed since thirteen colonies declared themselves a new and independent nation, no part of the Constitution has been plumbed for meaning more than the Second Amendment. In 2021, it’s clear which view has prevailed: it sometimes feels now as if guns are helping unmake America.
The United States has 331 million people and nearly 400 million civilian-owned guns, many of them high-powered weapons that discharge 40 plus rounds per minute.
But why so many? If more citizens shared the view of those who stormed the Capitol in January – that government was a threat to “the security of a free State” – then, yes, maybe all those weapons make sense. But that excuse was a fantasy. The explanation for so many Americans having guns is less the fear of government overreach, and more the paranoiac fear of “the other”.
Aside from the accepted uses for owning a gun, shooting targets and animals, America has an alarming number of people who shoot other people. No country rivals the US in non-war mass shooting incidents, as defined by four or more victims. In 2020, the nation had 615 mass shootings — 51 a month — in which 521 died and 2,541 were injured. Through the first four months of this year, 178 mass shootings left 206 dead and 693 injured. A twenty per cent increase in the nation’s murder rate in the first quarter of 2021, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was partly attributed to an increase in gun sales during the pandemic.
No country rivals the US in non-war mass shooting incidents, as defined by four or more victims
The big question, of course, is how to end the slaughter.
There’s obvious disagreement. After high-profile events like three in President Biden’s first 100 days – eight people shot dead in Georgia, ten in Colorado and nine in Indiana – lawmakers typically retreat to their default positions: Democrats call for new regulations, like universal background checks on buyers, a revival to a ban on the sale of assault weapons and new rules on so-called “ghost” guns, which are sold unassembled in kits and without serial numbers for tracking. Republicans, backed by one of the nation’s strongest lobbying groups, the National Rifle Association, argue that current laws are sufficient and the focus should be on mental fitness of the gun owner, not availability of the gun.
Even after one of the worst killing sprees in recent years – twenty first graders among 26 shot to death in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre – nothing changed.
With public anger rising, Biden signed a series of executive orders in April that serve as a modest first step toward addressing gun violence. But they fell well short of more ambitious actions that would require Congressional approval, like outlawing assault weapons or eliminating liability protections for manufacturers whose guns are used in a crime.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic,” he said when announcing the orders. “Let me say it again: gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment.”
Ghost guns are a relatively new part of the problem, fast becoming a favourite among criminals. Unlike conventional guns, which are manufactured with a serial number and require background checks No country rivals the US in non-war mass shooting incidents, as defined by four or more victims on the buyer, ghost guns are unregulated. They are sold in kits that require the user to complete construction and, because of that, they are not classified as firearms. In some cases, a buyer needs only a 3D printer to finish assembly.
Biden’s other executive orders included instructing the Department of Justice to produce an annual report on gun trafficking and to write a model “red flag” law for states, allowing law enforcement and family members to seek court permission to remove weapons from people posing a danger to themselves or others. He’s also called for more stringent regulations on handguns altered with an “arm brace” to make them shoot more accurately.
Efforts to reduce access to firearms routinely meet with fierce opposition by gun rights advocates, who insist any such measures impinge on the Second Amendment. In its first Second Amendment case in more than a decade, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could allow even more guns in public space – a challenge to a New York State law that places strict limits on carrying a concealed weapon outside the home for self-defence. Currently eighteen states have no laws barring residents from carrying concealed weapons outside the home.
In effect, gun advocates argue that more people carrying guns means fewer criminals using them. They also protest that restricting gun use would leave only criminals armed. Wayne LaPierre, the longtime head of the NRA, famously said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Yeah, well, that sounds reasonable, except that when mass shootings begin, a good guy is seldom around. Or maybe he was, until he got shot.
The ghost of Trump
His presence moves through the political fog of Washington like Jacob Marley’s ghost, ushering in the past, present and future America that bears his handicraft. He is proud, unrepentant, energised as ever, boasting See what I did? See what I’m doing? Get ready for more.
What the ghost is really saying is: my power remains; act accordingly.
Five months out of office, now ensconced in Palm Beach, Florida, Donald Trump has no less sway over the Republican Party than during the four years he served as president. On multiple fronts, he is bending Republicanism to his will and rewriting history, which has had the unintended effect of raising existential questions about the party itself. Will it remain true to civilised conservative values that respect truth and the US Constitution or morph into full-blown Trumpism, built on outlandish behaviour and the distortions he sells to sustain power?
The animating force behind the ruptured Republican landscape is the Big Lie, Trump’s persistent claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him through ballot box thievery. It remains his cause célèbre and has now become the litmus test that defines who is a true modern-day Republican. Doubt him at your peril.
Representative Liz Cheney, a stalwart conservative and daughter of the former Vice President, was purged from her position as the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives for refusing to perpetuate the election fiction and refrain from blaming Trump for inciting the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol. She insists her party and maybe the country is doomed if Trump’s sorcery holds. He has not ruled out seeking the presidency again in 2024.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she said in fiery contempt for the voice vote that removed her from leadership. “We have seen the danger that he continues to provoke with his language. We have seen his lack of commitment and dedication to the Constitution.”
But the Big Lie has spurred other actions, as well, prompting Republican-led states like Georgia, Texas, Arizona and Florida to pass new voting laws in the name of “election integrity” that effectively make it harder for Democrats to vote and win elections. In these states and others where Republicans hold legislative majority, Congressional districts are being redrawn, as they are every ten years, to safeguard Republican-held seats and create new ones – all to reclaim majorities in House and Senate elections next year and the White House two years later.
Furthermore, Trump has vowed to support primary challengers against any lawmaker who defied his demand to overturn the election or voted to impeach him for inciting the 6 January siege, which one Trump-flavoured lawmaker now calls “a normal tourist visit”. Never mind that five people died and 140 were injured.
It was all too much for Cheney and a growing number of other Republicans determined to break the fever. More than 100 are discussing plans to create a breakaway party more aligned with traditional Republican values and sanity.
“This is a first step,” Miles Taylor, who served under Trump as a Homeland Security official, told The New York Times. “This is us saying that a group of more than 100 prominent Republicans think that the situation has gotten so dire within the Republican Party that it is now time to seriously consider whether an alternative might be the only option.”
A man for all seasons
He played an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, a fugitive in Mud and a stoner named Moondog in The Beach Bum. Now film star Matthew McConaughey is contemplating a real-life role, Governor of Texas, and an April poll by the Dallas Morning News showed he has a fair chance of winning. McConaughey positions himself as a moderate. Governor Greg Abbott, a Trump-style Republican who
would be seeking a third four-year term, is a strong conservative.
As for celebrities seeking election, that’s nothing new in American politics. Among the more famous: Ronald Reagan, from actor to governor and president; Arnold Schwarzenegger, body builder and actor to governor; Sonny Bono, singer to House member; Clint Eastwood, actor to mayor; Jesse Ventura, professional wrestler to governor; Al Franken, comedian to senator; and, of course, Donald Trump, reality show host to president.
Among the latest celebrity aspirants is Caitlyn Jenner, once known as Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and reality show star (Keeping Up With the Kardashians), who has joined a field of several other Republicans in a California election to recall the Democrat governor, Gavin Newsom. At 71, she would become the nation’s first transgender state leader, but that’s not the unusual part. She affiliates with a party that has stood in strong opposition to transgender rights.
Actor Randy Quaid is also a potential candidate. He tweeted he’s “seriously considering” running for California governor. He doesn’t have any political experience, but he once played President Lyndon Johnson in a TV movie.
The election is scheduled for late fall. Voters first decide on whether Newsom should be recalled, which polls say is unlikely. If they vote yes, they then choose a replacement.
Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times