Four days after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 people dead and 53 injured, California’s state legislature voted yesterday to establish a $5-million firearm violence research center within the University of California (UC)—the first such publicly charted center in the country.
“Acts of firearm violence like Sunday’s horrific mass shooting in Orlando leave us searching for answers. California made finding those answers a priority, taking leadership once again where Congress has failed,” said state Democratic Senator Lois Wolk, who had proposed separate legislation earlier this year that was folded into a $170-billion budget bill approved this week by the legislature.
The first weeks after her son’s death, still shocked and grieving, Hockley and some of the other parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook began a “crash course” in the history of American gun laws and gun politics.
They learned that while assault weapons played a prominent part in many mass shootings, they play only a tiny role in America’s overall gun violence problem. The loophole-ridden 1994 federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, produced no clear evidence of reducing gun violence. An in-depth evaluation of the law concluded that the impact of even a more comprehensive ban would be “small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement”.
That was not a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. In the early 1990s, even some gun control advocates criticized the push for an assault weapon ban as a “distraction” with little crime-fighting benefit. But the ban generated intense, visceral reactions from the public. A former Democratic staffer who helped craft the assault weapon ban said he had hoped passing it would give Democrats the political momentum they needed to pass the drier, more technical gun laws that might actually save more lives.
Instead, the push for a political victory backfired. President Bill Clinton later blamed the assault weapon ban for the 1994 midterm victories that allowed Republicans to take over both houses of Congress. Many prominent gun control groups have since moved away from an assault ban – “through hard, bitter experience”, said Matt Bennett, a gun policy expert who advised Sandy Hook Promise.
The story of how millions of Americans discovered the urge to carry weapons—to join, in effect, a self-appointed, well-armed, lightly trained militia—begins not in the Old West but in the nineteen-seventies. For most of American history, gun owners generally frowned on the idea. In 1934, the president of the National Rifle Association, Karl Frederick, testified to Congress, “I do not believe in the promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” In 1967, after a public protest by armed Black Panthers in Sacramento, Governor Ronald Reagan told reporters that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
But the politics of guns and fear were changing. In 1972, Jeff Cooper, a firearms instructor and former marine, published “Principles of Personal Defense,” which became a classic among gun-rights activists and captured a generation’s anxieties. “Before World War II, one could stroll in the parks and streets of the city after dark with hardly any risk,” he wrote. But in “today’s world of permissive atrocity” it was time to reëxamine one’s interactions with fellow-citizens. He ticked off the names of high-profile killers, including Charles Manson, and wrote of their victims, “Their appalling ineptitude and timidity virtually assisted in their own murders.” Adapting a concept from the Marines, he urged civilian gun owners to assume a state of alertness that he called Condition Yellow. He wrote, “The one who fights back retains his dignity and his self-respect.”
Soon armed citizens acquired a political voice: in 1977, at the N.R.A.’s annual meeting, conservative activists led by Harlon Carter, a former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, wrested control from leaders who had been focussed on rifle-training and recreation rather than on politics, and created the modern gun-rights movement. In 1987, the refashioned N.R.A. successfully lobbied lawmakers in Florida to relax the rules that required concealed-carry applicants to demonstrate “good cause” for a permit, such as a job transporting large quantities of cash.
We analyzed data on all firearms currently advertised at Armslist, and found that in the four days following the mass shooting in Orlando — from Sunday, June 12, through Wednesday, June 15 — 15,500 unique new listings for all types of firearms were posted to the site; 3,625 — or about 1 in 4 — were listed as semi-automatic weapons by the seller; more than 2,000 firearms were not categorized by weapon type.