After the shooting in Newtown last year, Barack Obama signalled that he will use 2013 to attempt to reform America’s gun laws. But even with his best efforts, in a nation with 88 guns for every 100 people, the reform he wants is out of reach.
President Obama at a vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012.
The second amendment to the United States constitution gives Americans the right to keep and bear arms, so the only way Obama could ban civilians from owning firearms would be to pass a new amendment repealing it. To do this, he’d first need the support of two thirds of both Houses of Congress. The pro-gun Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, and the Democrats don’t have a large enough majority in the Senate.
If, by some miracle, Obama can win over Congress, he then needs the support of three out of four state legislatures. Currently, the Republicans control 27 state legislatures – more than half. Democrats control just 17, 21 short of the required three quarter majority.
Clearly, guns are here to stay. Congressmen aren’t re-elected until 2014, and it would take years to reduce the Republicans’ dominant hold over the states. So then, what can Obama do in the meantime?
Any rules regulating gun ownership will need to comply with the second amendment, and it’s up to the Supreme Court to determine this. They have generally taken a conservative approach. In 2008, they struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun ownership as unconstitutional, and ruled that a law requiring guns to be kept locked and unloaded was also too restrictive, reasoning that the second amendment was to enable self-defence of ordinary citizens, and any rule prohibiting this would be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s decisions paint a bleak picture for gun control, but all is not lost. They have allowed laws requiring registration, and banning assault weapons – like those used in Newtown. They also allow exclusion of certain groups of people from gun ownership (people with mental health problem and convicted felons, for example) as well as bans on guns in sensitive areas, like schools and government buildings.
Ultimately, Obama can bring back Bill Clinton’s assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, but beyond that his only real hope of reform is with the retirement of some Supreme Court Justices. This would allow him to appoint more liberal judges to the bench who are willing to effectively discard the second amendment by giving it a more “creative” reading, ignoring the apparent will of both the majority of the States and the majority of Congress.