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Mass shootings in the United States are always followed by desperate calls for gun reform from Democrats, anti-gun activists and victims’ families.
After Tuesday massacre in Uvalde, Texaswho killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, President Joe Biden asked America “turning pain into action” and asked, “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
But the reaction of many Americans who support the constitutional right to bear arms is to buy more, according to statistics.
According to the Brookings Institute, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in December 2012 that killed 26 people, nationwide gun sales rose three million above expected levels.
In the months following the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack in California, in which 24 people died, gun sales increased by 1.6 million from normal levels.
Professor Peter Squires, a criminologist at the University of Brighton and a member of the Gun Control Network, says one reason for this is fears that high-profile shootings could lead to restrictions on gun ownership.
“Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency (2009-2017), the National Rifle Association (NRA) called him the best arms salesman the United States has ever had because there always had this fear that he would impose bans,” he told Sky News.
Any societal anxiety can lead to a spike in sales
But he adds that any “turbulence” in American politics and society at large can lead to increased gun sales.
“That applies to all kinds of insecurities and anxieties that people have. There are spikes after any major unrest – riots, protests – we’ve seen that happen during the COVID pandemic.
“During the Trump regime and rising reports of racism, we saw more black women buying guns for the first time to protect themselves.”
The gun industry is also notorious for using mass shootings as a marketing tool, says Professor Squires.
“After mass shootings in the past, it seems perverse that people want to buy the gun he was perpetrated with.
“After Sandy Hook, for example, the gun industry started advertising that the Bushmaster AR-15 used in the attack was effective in shooting people.”
There are, however, limitations to data on firearms sales.
The figures officials use are the number of FBI background checks performed — but not all states use the federal database and do their own checks instead — and all those who request a background check don’t buy a gun.
People are also buying more and more guns from unlicensed sellers and on the internet, which won’t show up in the numbers.
Too many politicians paid by the NRA
According to the Pew Research Center, about one in three American adults owns a gun.
The Small Arms Survey suggests that there are 120 guns per 100 people – 400 million in total and 20 times the global average of six per 100 people.
After every armed atrocity in the United States, calls are made for background checks to be tightened and certain types of weapons to be banned.
But the NRA-led group of gun lobbyists funding politicians and their campaigns in exchange for votes to protect gun rights makes reform a near impossible task.
“A lot of people, including some in the NRA, think background checks should be expanded,” Prof Squires says.
“But when it comes to Congress and the Senate, there are too many NRA-paid politicians who will block it every day of the week.”
UK and Australia succeed in reform after tragedies
In contrast, countries like the UK and Australia have succeeded in restricting gun laws after suffering their own tragedies.
Following the Hungerford Massacre in Berkshire in 1987, which killed 16 people, semi-automatic weapons were banned.
Eighteen months after a gunman killed 17 people in the 1996 Dunblane school shooting, the government has banned private handguns and introduced a strict licensing system.
This has led to a decrease in the number of deaths caused by gun violence in the UK – from 1.06 million in 1996 to 0.44 in 2019.
Just twelve days after Martin Bryant killed 35 people in Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia, then Prime Minister John Howard announced sweeping gun reforms.
He created a licensing system to restrict access, a ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and nationwide amnesties that removed about one in four civilian guns from circulation and, to their turn, have dramatically reduced the number of gun-related deaths.
Commenting on the differences between the US and elsewhere, Professor Squires says: “We talk about America as a gun culture – it’s much more normalized there.
“And the biggest political lobby group is the NRA with four million members – we don’t have anything like that in the UK.”
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However, as in the United States, reform depends on the political mood, he adds.
“Even though we talk about the UK and Dunblane making a difference, there have been gun attacks where nothing has happened.
“It depends on what stage you are in the election cycle… Post-Dunblane gun reform was passed by Tony Blair, who was trying to become Prime Minister and stole the issue from the law and order to the conservatives.
“At the end of the day, it’s only when there’s political will that change happens.”
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