Once upon a time the American political system was the envy of the world. While other states succumbed to despotism, corruption, or anarchy, the United States benefitted from relatively accountable, effective, and honest governance that allowed us to rise from 13 small colonies on the eastern seaboard to become the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. But now our political system is grinding to a halt and producing more demagoguery than governance. Political gridlock is killing us. Literally.
After every mass shooting in the United States—attacks that are often carried out with some variant of the AR-15 or AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle—there is a cry to “do something.” But nothing is done. Not after Omar Mateen killed 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando in 2016. Not after Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015. Not after James Holmes killed 12 people in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. Not after Adam Lanza killed 26 people, 20 of them little children, at a Newton, Connecticut, elementary school in 2012.
And, most likely, nothing will be done after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history: the murder of 59 people in Las Vegas on Sunday night. The killer, Stephen Paddock, had in his possession at least 23 firearms, including both AR-15s and AK-47s. At least one of the rifles was said to have been modified with a “bump stock” that allows near-automatic rates of fire. (A 1986 law prohibits civilians from possessing automatic weapons, but 630,019 machine guns already in private hands were grandfathered in. Conversion kits are also available.)
In response President Trump gave (for him) an unusually eloquent speech and ordered flags flown at half-mast. That’s it. There is no chance that a Republican-controlled Congress would approve, or a Republican president would sign, legislation to outlaw semi-automatic, military-style weapons. And it’s true that even banning such weapons would not have a significant impact on gun crime, since there are only about 5 million to 10 million assault rifles in circulation out of 300 million guns in America today. But such weapons are used in a disproportionate number of mass shootings, which have been increasing in recent years even as the overall homicide rate has been falling.
After experiencing such a massacre in 1996, Australia succeeded in banning assault-rifles. Australia’s parliament, run by conservatives (they’re called the Liberal Party, but they’re small-c conservative), not only stopped the future sale; it outlawed their possession and authorized a buy-back of existing rifles. More than 650,000 guns were bought and destroyed by 2001. The result? According to a study by conducted by the University of Sydney, “there were 13 mass shootings in the 17 years prior to the passage of the National Firearms Agreement. Since then, there hasn’t been a single one.”
Why can’t the United States do something similar? Because the political will to do so does not exist, even though a ban is favored by roughly 60 percent of the population.
At then-President Bill Clinton’s urging, Congress did pass in 1994—at a time when partisan gridlock was less severe than it is today—an assault weapons ban. The U.S. law, however, was much less restrictive than the one in Australia: It did not affect the 1.5 million assault weapons and 25 million to 50 million large-capacity magazines then owned by Americans. As a result, its impact was not as great as had been hoped. The most comprehensive study of the law concluded: “Although the ban has been successful in reducing crime with AWs [assault weapons], any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics with LCMS [large-capacity magazines], which are used in crime much more frequently than AWs.”
The natural reaction would have been to expand the law to ban existing assault rifles and large-capacity magazines but instead, under pressure from the National Rifle Association, Congress allowed the law to expire altogether in 2003. President George W. Bush expressed support for the ban but didn’t lift a finger to extend it. Even many Democrats did not push all that hard to maintain the ban, which they blamed for costing them control of Congress in 1994. Since then, assault-rifle ownership has exploded—and so has the number of mass shootings. Yet far from acting to toughen gun controls, Congress is loosening them, recently making it easier for mentally ill people to buy guns. Now Congress is considering legislation to make it easier to buy silencers.
This is far from an isolated example of how our government fails to address pressing national needs. Another example: Congress keeps spending more money even though federal debt is soaring—now over $20 trillion, or more than $167,000 per taxpayer. The Republican tax cut will only increase this sea of red ink. Congress also won’t pass legislation to address the plight of 11 undocumented immigrants who are unlikely to be deported and are now consigned to the shadows of the economy. And of course Congress can’t agree to either repeal or bolster Obamacare, leaving the health care system in limbo.
Such examples can be multiplied many-fold as political polarization increases, single-issue lobbies grow more powerful, and it becomes harder to reach bipartisan compromise. America has survived as a superpower in the face of many external threats. But can we survive our own political dysfunction? As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”