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The White House press briefing room, a cramped and dingy corner of the West Wing, got a sprinkling of stardust on Tuesday afternoon when Hollywood A-lister Matthew McConaughey appeared at the podium. But the actor’s visit was far more sombre than the light-hearted glad-handing for which so many famous faces are seen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
McConaughey was born in Uvalde, the South Texas town where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in a horrifying primary school shooting two weeks ago. “Where do we start? We start by making the loss of these lives matter,” the actor said in an emotional plea for lawmakers in Washington to enhance gun safety laws.
As he recounted his conversations with parents of the victims and explained why, as a lifelong gun owner himself, he favoured stronger regulation of guns in America, McConaughey was able to make his case with more moral force and less partisan rancour than the president, or any of his colleagues, have so far managed.
The actor, who flirted with an independent run for Texas governor before deciding against it earlier this year, delivered a message with something for both sides of the aisle. “We need to invest in mental healthcare. We need safer schools. We need to restrain sensationalised media coverage. We need to restore our family values. We need to restore our American values. And we need responsible gun ownership,” he said.
McConaughey is just one of millions of Americans hoping that the horror of the Uvalde shooting might shock lawmakers into action. Meanwhile, the rest of the world scratches its head, once again perplexed by this grim, sometimes maddening, facet of American exceptionalism.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats in the House have passed a sweeping set of gun control measures (including raising the age limit for buying a semi-automatic rifle and prohibiting the sale of ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 15 rounds). But it stands no chance of passing the Senate, where 60 votes is needed for the legislation to become law.
Rather, Republican and Democratic senators are focussed on negotiations around a pared back package of measures that might stand a better chance of success.
Amidst complicated debates about the Second Amendment, which gives Americans the constitutional right to bear arms, and studies on the efficacy of various solutions to the problem of gun violence, the negotiators’ objective is simple enough to understand: find a set of measures that can carry the support of ten Republican Senators. Achieving that goal won’t necessarily be easy, however.
The mood in Washington hasn’t exactly been constructive lately, and guns have arguably become the quintessential wedge issue, on which deviation from the party line is not tolerated on either side. But the mood music around these negotiations is encouraging. Republican leaders have been bullish on the prospects of a deal and Chris Murphy, the chief Democratic negotiator, has said he hopes to get agreement on a package by the end of the week.
“We’re going to pay a price with the American public if we don’t come up with a deal soon,” said Murphy, whose represents Connecticut, where 20 six and seven year-olds were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Increasing the chances of a deal is the fact that senior Democrats appear to be in a pragmatic mood. Some of the more ambitious proposals favoured by Democrats, like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks, are nonstarters if they are serious about garnering the ten Republican votes they need. “I know the reality of the politics. A 50-50 Senate, a divisive issue. It’s not going to give me, and I think ... the American people [what we] are asking for,” Illinois Democratic Senator and majority whip Dick Durban told reporters this week. “But if it’s a step forward and makes us safer as a nation, we’ve got to do it.”
So what might the deal look like? Negotiations are reportedly centred on a package that includes enhanced background checks, federal policies that encourage so called red flag laws (which enables authorities to take guns from people in crisis) at the state level, funding for mental health and enhanced school safety measures. Also under discussion is a more contentious measure: raising the age for buying firearms from 18 to 21. It’s not hard to see the proposal’s logic: why should someone deemed too young to be trusted to buy himself a beer be free to buy a gun? The answer, pro-gun advocates would say, is because he has a constitutional right to do so.
For the most part, Joe Biden has let Senate negotiators get on with their job. But last week he gave a forceful speech on gun control at the White House. "How much more carnage are we willing to accept?" he asked pointedly of the Republicans attempting to block gun law reforms. “My God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable. We can’t fail the American people again,” he continued.
He called for urgent action but left it up to lawmakers to put together legislation. “The question,” he said in the televised address, “is what will the congress do? … It’s time for the Senate to do something.”
The White House looks set though to use the current hot topic of gun control, along with access to abortion if the Supreme Court overturns the ruling in Roe v Wade later this month, to galvanise voters. The President appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show on Thursday night and implored Americans to use their vote in the November mid-term elections. “You got to make sure this becomes a voting issue,” Biden said. “You got to make sure you vote. Let people know exactly what the devil you think.”
Horrifying school shootings may, understandably, grab the headlines, but they obscure the more prosaic reality of America’s gun problem. It may sound obvious, but the basic issue is simply the number of firearms in circulation in the United States. “If you compare American crime rates to those of Britain, France, Canada and so on, our crime rates are the same. And even our overall violent crime rates are not very different, but the murder rate is far, far higher,” explains Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and the author of The Politics of Gun Control. “And that’s because we’re awash with guns… The point about firearms is that they are the most efficient means to kill another person.”
According to one recent University of Washington study, the US gun death rate was 10.6 per 100,000 in 2016. That compares to 2.1 in neighboring Canada, 2.7 in France and under one in the UK. As of 2020, the leading cause of death among children in America is guns. The vast majority of those deaths weren’t in high-profile massacres but accidents, domestic arguments, gangland shootings: versions of lethal gun violence that do not shock in the way that Uvalde does.
Gun ownership has proliferated in recent years. With violent crime on the rise, more and more Americans are arming themselves. According to a University of Chicago study, between March 2020 and March 2022, one in five US households purchased a gun since the start of the pandemic and 5 percent of adults did so for the first time. The study found that new owners are less likely to fit the gun-toting stereotype: 69 percent of first time buyers were people of colour and nearly 90 per cent were under 45.
“Unfortunately, it’s very easy to equate American gun culture with some high profile organisations like the National Rifle Association, which seems very obstinate and tone deaf at times,” says David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest university who writes about American gun culture and who is both a gun owner himself and, as he puts it, a card-carrying liberal. “The public response from high profile organisations often differs from the private response of many gun owners. They are citizens, they have children, they are concerned, they are responsible, and they maybe look a little bit more like Matthew McConaughey than they do [NRA president] Wayne LaPierre.”
The NRA has been rocked by scandals and financial mismanagement in recent years, meaning it is no longer the force in American politics it once was, or that many imagine it to be. But its hardline pro-gun approach and combative tone — most memorably exemplified by the actor and then NRA president Charlton Heston, who said in a 2000 speech that if the government wanted to confiscate his gun they’d have to take it from his “cold, dead hands” — lives on. Republican candidates rarely deviate from uncompromising opposition to major new gun regulation. To do so, they know, is to find oneself on the wrong side of a vocal and committed minority for whom guns is a top political issue, even though the polls show clear majorities in favour of measures like universal background checks for people buying guns and a ban on assault weapons.
For that reason, even a modest set of reforms risks will be a tough sell for most Republican senators. And so, no matter how promising the negotiations look, the chance of disappointment for gun safety campaigners is considerable. Former President Barack Obama has called the day of the Sandy Hook shooting the saddest of his presidency. “But when Congress failed to do anything in the aftermath,” he said in a 2020 interview, “that was the angriest I ever was in my presidency. I was disgusted and appalled by the inaction.”
More sorrow feels like an inevitability. It is a question of when, not if, another mass shooting horrifies America. But it is up to he US Senate whether there is to be more anger and disgust or whether, as McConaughey put it at the White House on Wednesday, “we make these lost lives matter.”