The Second Amendment in the constitution of the United States of America protects what has been, and will seemingly continue to be a hot topic in American Politics. Throughout American history it has been debated as to what it means to have the right to keep and bear arms, as well as what the scope of that right encompasses. The debate is cyclical, in that it will appear as an important agenda subject, be discussed, and then fade away for another time. Within the past 50 years in American politics, the gun control debate has appeared in increasing frequency, due in part to gun related incidents that renew awareness about issues surrounding gun legislation and gun violence. Regardless of when the topic arises, there are always significant parties on each side of the debate. Those involved in the debate, and often in support of gun legislation, include the families of the victims, the state and federal governments, Congress, and the President of the United States. There are also groups which have historically opposed laws and dialogs limiting guns, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Gun Owners of America special interest groups, which are collectively referred to as the gun lobby.
The most recent and prominent instance of a gun related incident is the Sandy Hook school shooting, which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th, 2012. The shooting involved the deaths of 28 persons in total, 20 of which were children ranging from the ages of 5 to 10 (Barron, 2012). The perpetrator, Adam Lanza, rampaged the school with an assault rifle as well as multiple handguns and a shotgun. Under then-current Connecticut gun law, the only weapon the shooter had legal ownership of was the assault rifle. It should be noted that all shootings are a tragedy, but the Sandy Hook shooting particularly caught the public’s attention because of the involvement of children. This prompted discussion about gun control laws, gun law restructuring, and background checks for the purchasing of guns. Public protests cried for President Obama to introduce gun legislation to Congress.
Following the Sandy Hook shooting, a series of gun control laws were proposed, on both the state and federal levels. Given the ownership issues and weapons used in the shooting, these laws fixated on restricting assault weapons, as well as expanding required background checks for gun purchases. Less than a week after the shooting, President Obama formed a gun violence task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden with the intent to reform gun law and ultimately reduce gun violence (Tapper, 2012). The task force presented a plan which contained a series of executive orders, as well as multiple congressional propositions (NY Times, 2013). Obama signed the executive orders set by the task force, which addressed the way in which background checks were able to obtain data, as well as various changes to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The propositions to Congress also featured changes to the ATF, as well as funding for school and police training with regards to armed attackers. The most notable request to Congress was a proposed requirement of universal background checks for all gun sales, including those by private sellers which are currently exempted of background checks.
The proposed universal background checks were presented to Congress as Manchin Amendment 715, a bi-partisan bill which was sponsored by both an “A-Rated” NRA backed democratic Senator Joe Manchin, as well as republican Senator Pat Toomey (NRA-PVF 2012). This is where the debate about gun regulation begins to flare up again. As previously mentioned, the NRA is, and almost always has been a challenger of legislation which aims to limit gun access and gun ownership. It has previously used its influence via calling members of the group to vote one way or another, as well as providing funding for anti-gun legislation commercials, lawsuits and advertisement. However, this time the NRA was willing to discuss the possibility of universal background checks, and possibly even compromise to work with Senator Manchin in passing the Manchin Amendment through Congress. If this were to happen, it could be seen as a huge victory for gun legislation, as a major anti-gun legislation organization such as the NRA supporting the Manchin Amendment was previously unheard of. The sort of political support that would be gained by an endorsement from the NRA could have easily helped pass the bill. However, the Gun Owners of America began to spread warnings against the NRA, calling upon its membership of over 300 thousand to become politically active and express their dislike for the NRA to be working with the government in an effort to restrict guns. This caused the NRA to revoke Manchin’s “A-Rating,” back out of talks with the gun legislation effort and run smear commercials against Senator Manchin, in an effort to distance their organization from gun control legislation. Due to the voting power the membership of the NRA possesses, this effectively removed much of the external support for the Manchin Amendment. Other support for the bill did exist, in the form of pro-gun legislature groups, such as the Sandy Hook Promise group, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a survivor of an assassination attempt in Arizona (BBC News, 2013). It does not appear explicitly, but President Obama also provided support for the bill, and worked with Manchin, as well as the families of the victims at Sandy Hook, to make sure their emotional suffering was not for nothing. The supporting parties were vastly outnumbered when compared to other special interest groups, such as the NRA or Gun Owners of America. Ultimately, the bill was defeated in Congress by a vote of 54-46 (Lengell, 2013).
There are two main probable reasons why the bill was defeated in the Senate. As stated above, the NRA is an anti-gun legislation special interest lobbying group with a large membership. Due to its large membership and capability to unite a mass amount of voters for or against a given subject, Senators and Congresspersons who oppose the NRA’s vision are more likely to lose votes during their next campaign, and thus not be re-elected. The threat of losing an election dealt a major blow to the bill’s chance to be passed. This is likely the number one reason that the bill failed to pass the Senate. The Gun Owners of America employed a comparable strategy against the public image of the NRA, which lead them to back out of talks with Senator Manchin and subsequently withdraw any possibility of support or cooperation (Frontline, 2015). If the Gun Owners of America’s tactics directly caused the NRA to stop cooperating with Senator Manchin, then it also played a major part in halting the success of the bill. The second most likely reason that the bill was blocked by the Senate is somewhat related to the first, in that organized support for the bill was lacking, to an extent. President Obama initially provided minimal support for gun legislation, based on his advisers’ claim that opposing the NRA was a politically unsound decision. However, Obama created the anti-gun violence task force, and signed executive orders, as well as proposed the universal background checks to Congress. Obama also was supportive of the bill after its defeat, stating that the gun control effort was not over, and shamed the Senators for allowing the gun lobby to influence their decisions (Korte, 2013). Admittedly, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the victims of Sandy Hook, as well as other victims of gun violence were a strong emotional support for the bill, and likely played a major role in providing the much needed support for the bill. Unfortunately for the supporters and victims, their political influence appears to be no match for the NRA or Gun Owners of America, and was not robust enough to cause Senators to risk losing an election in order to pass the bill.
The gun lobby and special interest groups appear to have won this round of the gun control debate, but as President Obama stated, the effort is not over. Perhaps next time, supporters will be able to organize strongly enough to win the debate over gun legislation, and possibly match the NRA’s influence. Unfortunately for supporters of gun legislation, the NRA has been around for a very long time and has become a very important figure in the political field. President Obama has appeared mostly un-wavered by the political influence of the NRA, and perhaps he will be able to garner an increased amount of support for the next gun legislation debate that is guaranteed to arise. It is possible that the Sandy Hook Promise group will be able to grow in size and gain traction, or perhaps Gabrielle Giffords could create an organization to rival that of the NRA, and give gun legislation a fair chance. Whatever happens, one can be assured that the NRA will be there to fight off gun legislation, and without an increased amount of support, the proposed bill will likely be short lived.