The American people are, as a whole, reasonably sane when it comes to guns. But we have the craziest gun laws in the developed world. Why is that? The biggest reason is the pernicious influence of a group of radical activists who would rather thousands upon thousands of Americans die every year from gun violence than the country take even the most modest steps to try to rein in the carnage.
I speak not of the National Rifle Association, as important as it is. No, I'm talking about the Republican Party, particularly its politicians who populate the U.S. Congress and state legislatures around the country.
After a gunman killed 59 people (as of this writing) and injured hundreds more in Las Vegas, we knew exactly what the response from elected Republicans would be. "Thoughts and prayers," naturally — thoughts and prayers for all, we're thinking and we're praying. And the insistence that this is not the time to "politicize" the tragedy by talking about why so many Americans get mowed down each year. If you asked them when would be a good time to talk about it they might respond: How about never? Would never work for you?
Perhaps the two most critical facts about horrific mass shootings like the one that happened in Las Vegas are that they are made possible by our lax gun laws, and that they aren't the heart of our real gun problem. There's a reason that events like this one are vanishingly rare outside the United States, and it isn't that Americans are an inherently homicidal people. People murder each other all over the world, with whatever means they have at their disposal; the difference is that Americans can get their hands on as much weaponry as they want.
Yet as horrifying as the shooting in Las Vegas was, it represents around two days' worth of gun homicides in America, where about 11,000 to 12,000 people are killed with guns every year. And that doesn't include gun suicides, which account for another 20,000 or so (the presence of a gun in the home vastly increases the chance that a suicide attempt will be successful).
It goes without saying that if terrorists murdered 12,000 Americans this year we'd have torn the Constitution to shreds in order to put in place a police state that would make North Korea look like a model of free-wheeling liberalism. Consider that one knucklehead tried to blow up his sneakers on a plane, and now we all have to take off our shoes before boarding.
But the daily parade of dead bodies from gun violence produces no new laws to address the problem. The reason is simple: One of our two great parties, the one that happens to control Congress and most state legislatures at the moment, is categorically opposed to any law that might restrict gun rights in any way.
And that includes measures that have the support of most Americans — in some cases, virtually all Americans, including the overwhelming majority of Republican voters and even gun owners. Universal background checks, for instance, are supported in polls by 90 percent or more of us. No other public policy question gets that kind of near-unanimous support. You couldn't get 90 percent of Americans to agree that chocolate is tasty, but we agree on universal background checks. And yet, after 20 elementary school students were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, a bill to impose those checks failed in Congress. In the Senate, 41 of the 45 Republicans then serving mounted a successful filibuster to kill it, and it never made it to the House.
There are other measures that majorities of Americans agree might be helpful in curbing gun violence without imposing a burden on gun rights, like banning military-style rifles and large-capacity magazines. But we can barely have a debate about those questions, because elected Republicans are universally opposed to them and will go to any length to stop them. The official GOP position is essentially that of the most radical gun nuts, the tiny minority of people who fantasize about the day they'll be called upon to confront a terrorist death squad down at their local Piggly Wiggly, spitting the hot lead of freedom from the Glock they carry on their hip at all times.
So what are Republicans working on now? Bills they have introduced in Congress would ease the ban on silencers, loosen restrictions on armor-piercing bullets, and impose "concealed-carry reciprocity," meaning that if you're a gun owner from South Carolina and you want to take your gun to New York, you'll be able to carry it there too, despite what New York's laws might say. Apparently, the GOP's only concern is that there might not be enough people carrying enough guns in enough places.
There are times when each party's elites might temporarily take a position at odds with their own voters, but it's usually only until those voters realize what their party's position is and come around to join it. On guns, however, even rank-and-file Republicans are not nearly as extreme as the representatives they elect. They've managed, however, to avoid any political fallout from their base. And the bodies keep piling up.