In the U.S., Backlash to Civil Rights Era Made Guns a Political Third Rail

I am a mother of two young children and I wish I could say that the pain that parents in Uvalde, Texas feel this morning is unimaginable to me. But the truth is, while I’ve never experienced it directly, I’ve often had to imagine that pain.

I pictured it one day when I arrived to pick up my oldest daughter, then not yet 2 years old, from the daycare center in Washington, DC, and found that they were doing an active target practice with the babies and toddlers.

Her teachers explained that they trained the children to hide in a small dark room and not make any noise, so that if the worst happened, the shooter might not realize they were there. I imagined how useless silence and a closed door would be against someone out to kill young children. I imagined the life-destroying grief that would follow.

I had already practiced imagining then. A few years earlier, when my husband, then a public school teacher, texted me that they had been incarcerated for a reported shooting in the building, I imagined he would be killed or be helpless to help his students. to rescue. I imagined our life together.

And just as thousands of children in America no doubt do today, I had imagined that pain when I was a child myself. After the Columbine massacre, my classmates and I talked about the fact that our high-rise urban school building only had two flights of stairs and two main exits, meaning a mass murderer would just have to pull a fire alarm and then wait at the door for half the school within sight of his gun. Though I kept a superficial teenage bravado throughout the conversation, I imagined my sister and I going to different exits. I imagined only one of us would make it.

In all those cases, the disaster I had envisioned never materialized. I was luckier than the families in Uvalde, in Sandy Hook, or in Parkland.

But living in a country where children are taught that school is a place where they can get trapped and be killed still comes at a price; to live in a country where being a teacher means making a Secret Service-esque commitment to throw yourself before a lightning-fast bullet. The imagination, the fear, is a cost in itself.

I do not currently live in the United States. Today my oldest daughter goes to an elementary school that has no target practice, and she doesn’t learn that her school is a place where she should be afraid of being killed. My youngest daughter’s nursery never taught her to hide quietly in a dark room so a gunman wouldn’t find her. They don’t have to wonder if their school will be next after Uvalde. I don’t need to assuage the fear that would entail. They get a little more innocence as kids. I get a little more rest than their mother.

That’s an advantage that most Americans don’t have access to, because of choices American governments have made.

Other countries, as many, many articles this week will no doubt indicate, have made different choices.

After the 1996 Dunblane massacre, Scotland, in which a gunman killed 16 primary school students and a teacher, the British government banned handguns. Following the Port Arthur massacre in Australia that same year, the Australian government enacted strict gun laws, including bans on most semi-automatic and automatic weapons, as well as licensing and purchase restrictions. After the 2011 Utoya massacre in Norway, the government banned semi-automatic firearms and stuck to the legislation despite years of resistance from a well-organized hunter lobby. Following the Christchurch shootings in 2019, the New Zealand government passed tough new restrictions on gun ownership and announced a buyback program.

The United States is different. There have been many mass shootings in recent years, including those of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, but essentially no new gun control laws. And like so many other things about modern American politics, the reasons are rooted in the political backlash against the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and desegregation in particular.

“The modern quest for gun control and the gun rights movement it spawned were born in the shadow of… Brown (vEducation Council of Topekathe landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954),’ wrote Reva Siegel, a constitutional scientist at Yale Law School, in a article from 2008 in the Harvard Law Review. “Directly and indirectly, civil rights conflicts have shaped the modern interpretation of the Second Amendment.”

Desegregation sparked a reactionary reaction among white voters, especially in the South, who viewed it as exaggerated by the Supreme Court and federal government. That resistance, with the help of conservative political strategists, coalesced into a multi-problem political movement. Promises to protect the traditional family from the perceived threat of feminism attracted white women. And influential conservative advocates framed the Second Amendment as: a source of individual “counter-rights” that conservatives could seek protection in the courts – a counterbalance to the lawsuits of progressive groups on segregation and other issues.

That made gun control a very high-profile political issue for American conservatives in a way that sets the United States apart from other rich countries. The gun laws in the UK, Australia and Norway have all been passed by Conservative governments. While they had some resistance to the new measures, especially from fighter groups, it was inconsistent with a broader political movement such as gun rights in the United States.

In the United States, on the other hand, the issue is so high profile and so partisan that embracing gun rights is practically a requirement for Republican politicians trying to prove their conservative bona fide allegiance to voters. Taking an extreme pro-gun position can be a way for candidates to stand out in crowded primary fields. Supporting gun control, on the other hand, would leave a Republican vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, which helps explain why they so rarely take that position.

And even if that political landscape were to shift, the courts would still be there. As the right took the issue of gun rights into politics, conservative lawyers gave the Second Amendment new focus in law reviews and courtrooms, Adam Winkler, a constitutional law scholar at UCLA, wrote in the book. “Gunfight: The Battle for the Right to Bear Gun in America.”

The Federalist Society pushed for appointments of conservative judges, slowly transforming the judiciary into a conservative institution that enshrined broad Second Amendment right for individuals to own guns. Unless Supreme Court precedents such as: District of Columbia v. Heller destroyed, it would be difficult for the government to enact broad arms control measures.

Shootings like the one in Texas last night are enough to draw attention to the strength and momentum of the pro-gun movement. But changing it would be the work of decades. Even if politicians work diligently, there will be more mass shootings before that happens. In the meantime, parents and children in the United States will imagine the pain families in Texas feel today, and wonder if they are next.


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