The Gun Debate in the 2020 American Election

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution1

Introduction

The 2020 American election cycle appears to be one of the most consequential in United States history. It follows the 2016 cycle that brought President Donald Trump to the White House, and thus comes to affirm whether he returns for another term or to represent a repudiation of choosing him for that office. But this election is not only about electing a president but also about choosing 435 members of the House of Representatives, currently in Democratic hands, and 34 senators to the United States Senate which now has a Republican majority. There also are elections in many states and localities and initiatives and referendums on important issues for the American electorate.

Among these issues is that of the right to carry and use firearms which in some instances influences how this or that election result is determined––including those for president and Congress. This paper discusses this issue, looking at the constitutional grounds for this right, different influences and perspectives on it, and how the top contenders for office of the president, the incumbent Donald Trump and the challenger former Vice President Joe Biden, understand it.

First, however, some statistics. In October of 2019, the Pew Research Center published a study about gun ownership in the United States that showed that three in ten Americans (30 percent) say they personally own a firearm. Most own guns for personal protection. Still, a good 60 percent of the American public believe that gun laws should be stricter than they currently are, with only 31 percent of Republicans but 86 percent of Democrats agreeing.2 In other words, gun ownership has become a political issue. By the same token, Time magazine published a report in June 2018 that indicated that 46 percent of one billion personal firearms in the world––that is 393 million weapons––are owned by Americans, which is more than the sum of the citizen owners of the next 25 top countries.3

The Genesis of and Debate about the Right to Bear Arms

The Constitution of the United States was presented in 1787, discussed and ratified 1788, and went into effect in 1789. Immediately after its adoption, there were calls to augment it with changes that ensure the defense of personal freedoms and the functioning of the new state’s institutions. These changes came in the form of ten amendments the writers called “the Bill of Rights” that was ratified in 1791 and dealt with issues such as the right to free expression and the press as well as protection against self-incrimination, among others. This bill is practically understood to be the document that made the constitution a living charter applying to the everyday concerns of the American people immediately after the declaration of independence in 1776 and the establishment of the American state.

The Second Amendment to the constitution came to enshrine the founders’ understanding of the importance of ordinary Americans in defending the new state and nation at a time when the British Empire––as the former sovereign power in North America––was still a menace and indeed was still organizing military campaigns for its reconquest. The amendment also came to codify the people’s involvement in forming militias to support the nascent American military; which at any rate was still dependent on the ability of the different states to provide the necessary funding and manpower. But the Second Amendment has gradually and progressively become more problematic in American politics as the United States became an established state and later a global power.

Back in the eighteenth century and ever since, purists who have had a literal interpretation of the constitution understand the amendment as permanently enshrining an unchanged and unchangeable principle of individual freedom to own, keep, store, and use personal firearms. These purists see themselves as helping to defend the nation but also as exercising their constitutional right to property.4 In contrast, there are those who see the amendment as having passed its prime since the eighteenth century, and who truly appreciate the military power of the United States as obviating the role of individual people or the militias in defending the country.5 These are supported by the reality that, first, the United States homeland has not been subject to an invasion and occupation so that its people can liberate it and, second, only the US organized military is involved in the country’s military adventures overseas.

In between these two positions are those Americans who do not see that the amendment as envisioned originally in the eighteenth century is applicable anymore, yet want to preserve the right to own guns for personal protection or mere leisure. They have proposed different versions of how to accommodate the constitutional provision stipulated in the Second Amendment and reconcile it with the new realities of the country.6 In essence, the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms have become seminal political issues discussed popularly, not only in federal elections but also in state and local elections. And discussion about the amendment has become what in American politics is called a wedge issue, just like other cultural topics, including abortion, the rights of minorities, education, the role of women, and the rights of homosexuals, among others.

Over the last two decades, a new complication in the discussion of the right to bear arms has arisen regarding the type of personal arms Americans like to own or are allowed to own and use. For those who defend the individual’s right to bear and use arms, there is hardly any distinction between small arms (pistols, revolvers, shotguns) and military style automatic and semiautomatic weapons. In many states of the American union, individuals have a right to purchase an AK-47, an AR-15, an Uzi, or an M-16, to name a few rapid-fire weapons. Many also allow individuals to purchase weapons ‘on the spot’ without a thorough background check that could look into the past of the buyer.

While small arms are responsible for many deaths every year, the loudest noise has been generated by incidents of mass shootings at the hands of individuals with undetected mental illness; although some have been perpetrated by quite sane people. Some mass shootings have also been perpetrated with small arms. But whether individual murders or mass killings, death rates in the United States by a firearm are alarming. In 2019, the Pew Research Center published a report that said that gun-related deaths in the United States in 2017 (latest available) reached almost 40,000, of which some 60 percent were suicides and 37 percent were actual murders.7 As for mass shootings (4 victims or more), since a 2012 attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut in which 20 children and six educators were killed by a gunman using semiautomatic rifles and pistols,8 and until July of 2020, there were some 2,654 attacks with 2,908 people killed and 11,088 wounded.9

During the 2020 election cycle, the polarization in American society about the gun issue is manifesting itself in a very dangerous fashion. Many racist supporters of the incumbent President Donald Trump are showing up armed at demonstrations for social and equal justice following a number of tragic incidents that led to the death of African Americans at the hands of police personnel in different American cities. At a recent protest in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin after police shot an unarmed black man in the back seven times, a white teenager from the adjacent state of Illinois shot and killed two unarmed protesters and wounded a third with an AR-15 automatic weapon.10 On September 6, rightwing and leftist militia members came close to clashing in Louisville, Kentucky (a state that allows carrying arms openly) during the annual horse racing event in the city. The Black Lives Matter movement had called for protests at the event to demand that the authorities investigate the killing of an unarmed black woman in the city six month before.11 Armed militias have indeed become a danger to the rule of law and state power, especially as the American president exploits the many divides in American society, including that about the right to bear and use arms.

The National Rifle Association

The main lobbying organization for gun rights in the United States is the National Rifle Association (NRA). Originally established in 1871 to promote marksmanship and knowledge of arms and ammunition, the NRA has presence on the national, state, and local levels. In American political parlance, the NRA is considered to be a single-issue organization: all of its activities, writings, lobbying, fundraising, and political involvement are concentrated on the promotion of the individual’s right to bear and keep arms as well as on emphasizing Americans’ freedom to legally use them.12

In today’s political environment in the United States, the NRA appears to have found its refuge in the Republican Party, although those who own and carry arms in the country are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and others. To be sure, public opinion indicates that the NRA has actually taken over the Republican Party.13 Reasons for the NRA’s firm association with the Republican Party today are several, but an important one is the social reality that the party relies for much of its political fortunes on conservative rural areas where gun ownership is both culturally accepted and instrumentally useful for personal defense and leisure. It also is important to mention that rural communities are generally more conservative on social and religious issues in the United States and find themselves attracted to the Republican Party. Indeed, it is hard to see how the party can be less conservative if a large part of its constituency comes from rural areas with traditional and conservative values.

But another important reasons for the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party has to do with the organization’s financial support during election times and cycles. In the 2016 election cycle, the NRA reported spending $55 million, $30 million of which went to support President Trump’s campaign alone. During the last four presidential elections (in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016), the organization’s financial support went to Republicans; only one percent benefited Democrats.14 This embrace of the Republican party and affinity with it have shown themselves at election time when the overwhelming majority of Republican office seekers are vocal in defending the Second Amendment in its traditional interpretation and excoriating Democrats for allegedly wanting to take people’s freedom away.

But as American society becomes more attuned to the nuances of gun rights and responsibilities, this accusation is gradually losing its impact. Moreover, there is more agreement among Americans that gun laws should be stricter. Since 2011, there has been a steady rise in the number of Americans who want stricter laws governing ownership and use, from 44 percent to 64 percent, and a drop from 44 to 28 percent among those who believe that current laws are just right.15 Background checks on gun purchasers have also become a focus of activists and advocacy groups; currently, 97 percent of Americans approve of expanding these checks. Other issues include closing loopholes on gun sales, controlling for illegal sales, online purchases, unifying laws across state lines, and a slew of other concerns.16

In addition to lobbying to preserve the right to own and bear arms, the NRA works to derail legislation at the federal, state, and local levels to regulate that ownership, with Republicans generally in a supporting role. In general, states and localities with Republican majorities in their legislative assemblies have looser gun control laws than those with Democratic majorities, although there are Democratic-controlled states that have less strict gun laws than others. In general, however, the NRA’s clout as defender of the individual right to bear and keep arms is diminishing because of financial improprieties by its leaders, internal squabbles and competition, and legal troubles with the state of New York where it is registered. In fact, it is in danger of closing following the NY Attorney General’s call for shutting it down.17

Its disappearance, however, will not by any stretch of the imagination mean the end of the salience of the issue of the right to bear arms in the presidential and other elections. Indeed, those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Second Amendment will likely be voting for Trump; those in opposition will go for Biden. Moreover, there are those in different parts of the United States who are willing to resist the state’s power to protect their right to bear arms. For example, a disturbing report in December 2019 mentioned that more than 100 local jurisdictions in Virginia alone plan to defy the state’s right to regulate gun laws, in essence threatening a serious challenge to legislative and executive authority in the state.18

Candidates’ Stands on Gun Laws

Gun laws regarding ownership and rules and regulations on types, use, carrying and displaying, and background checks among other things are an essential part of the ongoing culture war in the United States this election season. Proponents of the Second Amendment and all related things consider it a central issue that puts them in direct opposition to the Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden, although their political stance is also influenced by other factors. Those who advocate limits on gun ownership generally see that the amendment has already lived out its usefulness and do not mind abolishing it. They generally side with Joe Biden on issues related to guns and their use, although they too have other issues that influence their choice for president. To be sure, however, those preferring adherence to the letter and spirit of the Second Amendment are more adamant about it and judge it to be a major factor in their vote this year.

Joe Biden’s Position: The former vice president has not advocated the abolishment of the Second Amendment but has some general positions on its provisions regarding rules and regulations of gun ownership and other issues. His position is best articulated on his website www.joebiden.com19 where his campaign has an extensive explanation of his long record and achievements on this issue as well as his promises of what he aims to accomplish if elected president.

Briefly, Biden promises:

  • to ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as to buy these back from those who possess them now. These have been used in deadly shootings that killed a large number of people, such as in schools and movie theaters;
  • to regulate the possession and use of firearms, such as requiring background checks on purchasers. The concern here has been that people with mental illness can buy a weapon without the authorities knowing about his condition and then using it against others.
  • to restrict the purchase and ownership of guns to any one person to one per month. This in reality does not make for a safer gun culture, but Biden believes this can limit the number of weapons in general possession;
  • to close loopholes regarding background checks, people purchasing weapons, and time waiting for clearance during a background check;
  • to end online purchases where anyone can buy a gun. This may allow the submission of forged documents or provision of inaccurate information;
  • and to enhance the power of the states to regulate issuing licenses for legal purchases and possession of firearms.

It is noteworthy that all Democratic presidential candidates in this election cycle have had differing versions of Biden’s positions during the Democratic primaries, although some of them went a bit farther than others. All of them, however, Biden included, remained within the acceptable position of the general public on the issue.

Donald Trump’s Position: This year, the Republican Party did not have a new platform for the elections and the party’s and Trump’s position on the Second Amendment and issues of firearms has not changed from that in 2016. To be sure, Republicans this year decided to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”20 Generally, there is a dominant belief among Republicans––from the president to almost all elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels­­––that the Second Amendment is among the most important in the American constitution. The 2016 party platform considered the Second Amendment to be the one that protects what Republicans belief is a natural and inalienable right to bear arms.21

While in office, President Trump has affirmed his deep belief in the right to own and bear arms, except on a few occasions when he had to go along with some proposed changes to the basic Republican argument. Such occasions included heated debates about what to do about school shootings when politicians proposed legislative action regarding the type of weapons allowed to be owned by civilians. But even then, he had to back down because of the political cost he was afraid of paying if he had gone along with proposed changes. For example, in the spring of 2018, after he toyed with the idea of limiting rights to arms following a school shooting in Florida, he joined the National Rifle Association in resisting any changes to existing laws. He even embraced the idea proposed by conservatives that perhaps the way to address school shootings is to arm teachers.22 With polarization gripping American society, Trump today has no recourse but to stay with his traditional position on this issue so that conservatives and rightwing Republicans and supporters do not peel away from his campaign. Even if he is for gun control laws––which he isn’t––he will not dare to cross the party base in this year’s tight election.

Polarization about Firearms will Persist

The issue of the Second Amendment and Americans’ right to own and carry firearms is not limited to a specific election or time period. Since it is related to an ideological interpretation of the constitution of the United States, it will remain an active philosophical concern for liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, urbanites, and people of the countryside, among others. It thus will continue to be a political issue representing serious polarization in American society. Past experiences with gun ownership and the laws regulating it have not so far resolved the continuing debate about them. Neither will the upcoming presidential election have a definitive answer on the path forward. Like other unresolved issues in American democratic government, the Second Amendment and laws governing its implementation will remain an issue in many presidential elections to come.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 “Right to Bear Arms,” Constitution Center, n.d. (accessed 2/27/2020 at https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-ii).
2 John Gramlich and Katherine Schaeffer, “7 facts about guns in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 22/10/2019 (accessed 3/2/2020 at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/22/facts-about-guns-in-united-states/).
3 Edith Lederer, “Americans Own 46% of the World’s 1 billion Guns, Says U.N. Report,” Time, 18/6/2018 (accessed 3/2/2020 at https://web.archive.org/web/20180622212521/https://time.com/5315400/gun-ownership-america/).
4 “United States: Gun Ownership and the Supreme Court,” Library of Congress, n.d. (accessed 5/3/2020 at https://www.loc.gov/law/help/usconlaw/second-amendment.php).
5 John McNamara, “The Fight to Bear Arms: Challenging the Second Amendment and the U.S. Constitution as a Sacred Text,” European Journal of American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2017) (accessed 25/2/2020 at https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.12179).
6 Alexander Nazaryan, “Second Amendment Rights Have Limits, Despite What Republicans Say,” Newsweek, 9/10/2017 (accessed 5/3/2020 at https://www.newsweek.com/second-amendment-las-vegas-gun-control-680384).
7 John Gramlich, “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 16/8/2019 (accessed 5/9/2020 at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/16/what-the-data-says-about-gun-deaths-in-the-u-s/).
8 “Sandy Hook school shooting,” History, 14/12/2012 (accessed 9/9/2020 at https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gunman-kills-students-and-adults-at-newtown-connecticut-elementary-school).
9 German Lopez and Kavya Sukumar, “After Sandy Hook, we said never again,” Vox, 21/7/2020 (accessed 9/9/2020 at https://www.vox.com/a/mass-shootings-america-sandy-hook-gun-violence).
10 Steven Groves and Bernard Condon, “Teen accused of killing 2 thrust into debate over protests,” ABC News, 28/8/2020 (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ill-teen-charged-kenosha-shooting-killed-hurt-72670186).
11 Chuck Culpepper, Samantha Schmidt, Jessica Wolfrom, and Juliet Eilperin, “Tension rises in Louisville, while violence breaks out in Rochester, Portland,” Washington Post, 6/9/2020 (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/05/tension-rises-louisville-right-wing-left-wing-groups-clash-racial-justice-demonstrations/)
12 “A Brief History of the NRA,” The National Rifle Association, n.d., (accessed 5/3/2020 at https://home.nra.org/about-the-nra/).
13 Amber Phillips, “The NRA-ification of the Republican Party,” Washington Post, 14/8/2015 (accessed 5/3/2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/08/14/the-nra-ification-of-the-republican-party/).
14 Peter Stone and Ben Wieder, “NRA spent more than reported in 2016 election,” McClatchy DC, 6/10/2017 (accessed 6/9/2020 at https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/article177312006.html). In fact, the article cited unnamed sources who said that the NRA spent close to $70 million on the 2016 election cycle. The $55 million figure is what was declared to the authorities.
15 “Guns,” Gallup, n.d., (accessed 5/9/2020 at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1645/guns.aspx).
16 “Gun Laws, Loopholes, and Violence,” Brady United, n.d., (accessed 6/9/2020 at https://www.bradyunited.org/issue/laws-and-loopholes). Brady United is an organization established by Jim and Sarah Brady. Jim Brady was former President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate the president in March 1981. Brady sustained a head wound that partially paralyzed him for life.
17 Robert Spitzer, “The NRA is doomed. It has only itself to blame,” Washington Post, 8/8/2020 (accessed 5/9/2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/08/08/nra-is-doomed-it-has-only-itself-blame/).
18 Tyler Arnold, “Over 100 localities plan to defy Virginia gun laws, one Dem suggests national guard enforcement,” The Center Square, 24/12/2019 (accessed 3/2/2020 at https://www.thecentersquare.com/virginia/over-localities-plan-to-defy-virginia-gun-laws-one-dem/article_d504f584-25c7-11ea-a74e-2b8dd44e6436.html).
19 “The Biden Plan to End Our Gun Violence Epidemic,” Biden-Harris, n.d., (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://joebiden.com/gunsafety/#).
20 On the party platform, see Tom Porter, “Republicans will not adopt a new platform at this week’s convention and will instead pledge to ‘enthusiastically support Trump’,” Business Insider, 24/8/2020 (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://www.businessinsider.com/gop-platform-at-rnc-pledge-trump-support-2020-8).
21 “Republican Platform 2016,” University of California at Santa Barbara, The American Presidency Project, 18/7/2016 (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/2016-republican-party-platform).
22 See Jeff Mason and Daniel Trotta, “Trump back in step with NRA after doubts over Parkland shooting,” Reuters, 4/5/2018 (accessed 8/9/2020 at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-guns-trump/trump-back-in-step-with-nra-after-doubts-over-parkland-shooting-idUSKBN1I50ZR).