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Bang, bang — democracy’s dead: Obama and the politics of gun control

…. Tennessee State University, Northern Arizona University, Texas Southern University, Winston-Salem State University, Mojave High Scool, Lawrence Central High School, Umpqua Community College, Harrisburg High School, Sacramento City College, Savannah State University, Southwestern Classical Academy, Bethune-Cookman University, Frederick High School, Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Marysville Pilchuck High School…. the list school shootings goes on (and on). Over twelve thousand people died in the United States last year from gunshot wounds. Since the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 there have been no fewer than 161 mass shootings. Does Obama’s frustration suggest that democracy is part of the solution or part of the problem?

It would seem that President Obama has a new prey in his sites. It is, however, a target that he has hunted for some time but never really managed to wound, let alone kill. The focus of Obama’s attention is gun violence and the aim is really to make American communities safer places to live. The New Year therefore brought with it an Executive Order from the President that requires all firearms sellers to seek a licence and initiate background checks on purchasers. There is no doubt that this will make the process of buying a gun a slightly slower and more cautious process but in reality it will do little to reduce the scale of gun crime. Obama knows this well and his measures are themselves borne from a frustration that has seen the Congress repeatedly block his attempts to push through more significant measures.

The killing of twenty school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 fuelled a national discussion about gun control. Mass killings by gunmen in civilian settings, children covered in blankets, screaming parents rushing to see if their child has missed the carnage…the emotive politics of gun control turned from individual liberty and protection to individual responsibility and collective freedom but Obama’s attempt to limit the availability of semi-automatic assault weapons was defeated in the Senate. Body bags and public support, it seemed, was not enough to deliver change.

And yet crises – as political science frequently tells us – generally create ‘windows of opportunity’ into which radical new policy shifts can occur. Not, it would seem, in the case of gun atrocities in America.  The paradox of the American psyche is that Obama’s call for restrictions on the sale of guns actually stimulated the biggest spike in gun sales that the country had seen for nearly two decades (1.6 million guns sold in December 2015).

So is democracy the problem or the solution?

Democracy is, as Bernard Crick sought to underline in his Defence, inevitably slow and cumbersome. It is messy simply because it somehow has to squeeze simple decisions out of a vast array of competing and often intractable social demands. As a result the democratic process tends to contain multiple veto points that can stifle responsiveness; a smooth policy change is suddenly turned into a sluggish and grating process that too easily morphs into gridlock and inaction.

Could it therefore be that the problem with democracy is that it prevents the implementation of measures that look eminently sensible to the rest of the world?

To some extent this might be true and the interesting element of Obama’s recent move is that by using an executive order to promulgate gun control he is in effect circumnavigating elements of the democratic process. But even here his weakness shines through. First, in the sense that by adopting this approach he risks setting a precedent for future presidents who have a very different approach to gun control and wish to shift the balance via executive order in a very different direction. And (secondly) the significance of the measures are so far removed from any notion of actually disarming the country that they could be interpreted as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Mr Obama is clearly using some of his final ‘lame-duck’ year freedoms to push the issue of gun control back onto the political agenda. But at the moment the lack of political will is making gun control look too much like ‘a sitting-duck’ for the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups who want to take it back off the agenda. Some opinion polls suggest that the mood of the American public is shifting away from unlimited ownership but the pace of change appears glacial. In some ways American gun control has regressed rather than progressed in recent years as the federal ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that existed between 1994-2004 has not been renewed by Congress. But it’s too easy to exaggerate the threats or to ridicule gun toting Americans but the reality is far more sad: most deaths occur from guns being used to commit suicide, or are found by children and toddlers who mistake them for toys with devastating effects. When it comes to gun control and American politics then maybe – just maybe – could there be a case for a benevolent dictator who understands that the ballot and bullets, just like guns and safety, just don’t mix?

…. Reynolds High School, Seattle Pacific University, Kennedy High School, Georgia Gwinnet College, Paine College, South Carolina State University, Purdue University, Los Angeles Valley College, Rebound High School, Widener University, Delaware Valley School, Berrendo Middle School, Magne High School, Arapahoe High School, Brashear High School, Carver High School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology….

Featured image: Gun Club by Peretz Partensky via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. d.m.mccarter

    There are many issues to pick with this essay but I’ll focus on the chief one that should be obvious to a reasonable person, much less one who is a professor of political science: “Could it therefore be that the problem with democracy is that it prevents the implementation of measures that look eminently sensible to the rest of the world?”.

    Democracies are representuve of their citizens, and not “..the rest of the world”.

    Perhaps the form of government we have in the US is a hinderance to the will of others but that’s the way it is.

  2. Robert Miller

    Why should our society accept the fallacy of the conversation being framed around “the emotive politics of gun control turned from individual liberty and protection to individual responsibility and collective freedom”?

    Jefferson once wrote, “What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.” Our “collective freedom” hinges on the respect for and protection of the individual right to self-preservation and the means of securing and defending it.

    Society has rejected the imagination of politics solving this issue, believing, with good cause, that a law can’t reduce the actions of man to absolute regularity. After all, the enumeration of killing fields, without the willingness to investigate and assign the commonality of those laws assigned them, is a mockery to sense and reason.

    People are purchasing arms because they no longer have reason to believe our government is concerned with securing our unalienable right. They are more concerned with using fear and fraud to subjugate the masses, to formally consolidate the power into the hands of a few. Those charged with protecting and serving our society have no duty to protect and in almost every sense, represent the body charged by our founding document as being protected by mock trials, allowed to murder the inhabitants of this land.

    This essay fails to understand the protection of our freedom must only be restrained by rightful liberty. A government that disregards this is no different than those who added the names of innocence to the killing fields. Laws that mean to restrain our right to defend ourselves only serve the interests of the robbers and oppressors, they only make it better for those who wish to cause harm.

  3. Ko I

    The United States of America is not a democracy. It never was. It is a republic. The people may vote for representatives, but the people do not vote on issues.

    The failing of gun control is not the NRA, democracy, or the lack there of. The failing is the direction it seeks to go. Virtually all gun control treats possession as misuse. Background checks, registration, licensing, bans, barring certain sorts of people from having them, etc, is not directing the law to punish/prevent criminal activity. It’s directing the law to punish/prevent possession. If this policy worked, we should have seen a continual decline in crimes committed with firearms since the late 1960s. We have not. It has gone up and down, just like it did before the Gun Control Act of 1968, and while it has been on the decline since about 1991, so has all violent crime. Possession, however, has been increasing in that same time, and steadily so. Correlation is not causation, but there’s simply no data to infer that restricting/banning possession of firearms has done anything to reduce crime.

    This is for a reason that is actually fairly simple: gun control does not seek to reduce crime, i.e. misuse. It seeks to reduce possession. Currently, there are at least one hundred million gun owners in the country. About a third of the population. If possession were the issue, our violent crime rates would probably be close to one in three people, not one in two hundred seventy (approximately, FBI UCS Annual Crime Reports data from 2014, and this is all violent crime, not those using firearms).

  4. C. Cooper

    Whether America was going to be a democracy or a dictatorship, or whether Americans were going to be citizens or subjects was decided in a war 240 years ago. America’s side won, Obama’s side lost. Anybody who wants to reverse that has to be willing to start round 2.

  5. Get Freight

    Exactly, who cares what other countries think. Would you take the advice of a poor man on how to get rich? Of course not.

    Our system of government was designed to purposely be slow and cumbersome. Our founding documents all limit the scope and reach of government. So I celebrate what Mr. Flinders complains about. At least something in government is working no matter how poorly.

    We should be asking ourselves, does the government have the responsibility for the safety of each individual? All 300,000,000 of us? And if you believe they are, is there a limit to what they can do to succeed in this mission? If you were completely responsible for the safety of a large group, would it be better ( efficient and effective) to teach self sufficient behavior or try to be everywhere all the time?

  6. Clifford Ishii

    The one problem that Obama and the liberals have with gun control or any issue is that we are a constitutional republic not a democracy. And Americans will resist and fight to maintain it.

  7. Big Gun

    “Some opinion polls suggest that the mood of the American public is shifting away from unlimited ownership but the pace of change appears glacial.”

    Other opinion polls as well as surging gun sales, NICS checks and applications for firearm licenses suggest growing swathes of the public see the importance of responsible gun ownership and preservation of the second amendment.

    What a pointless essay.

  8. Odysseus M Tanner

    “most deaths occur from guns being used to commit suicide, or are found by children and toddlers who mistake them for toys with devastating effects” That’s a matter of behavior that’s hardly relevant to the right of the people. And this is not a democracy question, it’s a matter of principle, and that means there can be no assault weapons ban that would have any legitimacy.

  9. R Missroon

    Why is it that everyone is focused on curbing gun violence and not trying to find a way to solve the problem of violence in general. Guns don’t make people kill. The discourse needs to shift away from how to stop guns, an inanimate object, toward how to stop killers. The same goes for the issue of suicides. Guns don’t force people to commit suicide mental illnesses do. We as a society need to step up and address the real problems of crime and mental illness not distract from them with emotional and illogical responses to violence.

  10. Jason Page

    Why would a benevolent dictator stop at “helpful” gun control? Why not ‘step in’ and do other things for our good? Why not a national 35mph speed limit on our highways which would prevent far more deaths annually than accidental firearms deaths? Why not limit the size of soft drink servings to 8 ounces per day to battle obesity? Oh wait, freedom, that’s why.

  11. Ranger Rick

    “The paradox of the American psyche is that Obama’s call for restrictions on the sale of guns actually stimulated the biggest spike in gun sales that the country had seen for nearly two decades (1.6 million guns sold in December 2015).”

    We Americans and America itself are ‘different’, we always have been and hopefully will continue to be so. Those on the outside don’t understand this, our history and development, for better or worse has made us the people we are.

    Our God given rights as documented in our Constitution include the right to bear arms, those with “Constitutional Monarchies” and “People’s Republics” do not. That’s the difference between ‘serfs’, ‘comrades’ and “citizens”,

  12. Smith

    I thought we fought two wars to keep you all from meddling in our affairs.

  13. John

    Not sure if the Professor understands the reasons why we have the Second Amendment.. Its definitely not for hunting.. Maybe a case for a benevolent dictator? No. Not even sure why someone would suggest that… The Second Amendment is in place so that citizens can prevent/remove “benevolent” dictators.

  14. Eric

    Democracy is the problem? Following that logic we should go ahead and look at that pesky 1st amendment too. No sense in allowing people to say something, about our government, that the rest of the world doesn’t agree with.

    Amazing how little someone with an education really knows…

  15. Jim H

    To prevent the rise of a dictator is the reason why we have an enumerated right of the people to keep and bear arms written into our Constitution. Once a “benevolent dictator” removed the right to arms what will this dictator decide is next to go in order to make people safer? Free speech? Religion? Assembly? Jury trials?

  16. Ted

    You are confusing “a problem with democracy” with not getting your way.

    The people of this country have spoken. Gun ownership is at an all-time high, yet crime has fallen for over 30 years.

    Our constitutional republic is working – just not the way you want.

  17. J. Kabal

    Mighty clever opening Professor. Listing schools, annual death toll numbers, and mass shootings falsely suggests a link and seeks an emotional response. Clearly, this was intentional. Context and facts, however, matter and a closer, unprejudiced examination of relevant data should instead be the basis of discussing important public policy. Using a crisis as a “window of opportunity” is a despicable practice, but from one who suggests even the smallest potential utility of a “benevolent dictator” it is not a surprising idea at all. As you very plainly have an agenda, forming a more detail rebuttal is undoubtedly futile.

  18. Sandra

    I lived in the UK. Stop and frisk, which is unconistutional in the US, yet we know massively reduced murder, is legal in the UK.

    And also how sober and serious is this essay without mentioning US gun murder rate fell 65% from 1993 to present? Just leave out the core objective metric? Not sober to leave that out.

    by the way less than 0.7% of people who die from gunshot in the US are murdered with “Assault rifles.”

    And stop blaming a supposed “lobby”. In fact Gallup, Pew, NYTimes, Washington Post, CNN and ABC polls on support for more gun control laws show a consistent decline over 40, 30, 20, 10 and five year trends.

    The US does not have lower warrant requirements, lower thresholds for evidence exclusion, double jeopardy and scores of lower criminal justice protections that most of rest of the English speaking world has as well. If double jeopardy does not help reduce crime why to Australia and Canada now allow it?

    And the UK., which the Guardian has said is a surveillance state “without par” in the entire world? No thanks

  19. fishydude

    “Perhaps the form of government we have in the US is a hinderance to the will of others but that’s the way it is.”

    Correction. That is the way it is supposed to be.
    We have a representative republic that is intended to protect the minority from the whims of the majority.
    As for the stats this ‘professor’ includes, he does what any good brow beater would do. Ignore or mix facts that are inconvenient.
    Fact, over 60% of annual firearms related deaths are suicide. That means absent a gun, these people would still be dead by another means because they actually wanted to die. Of the remaining segment, the majority are gang related homicides that now law can prevent. After all, criminals don’t care about any law.
    Accidental deaths are a small percentage and pale in comparison to deaths by back yard pool, bath tub, skateboard, bicycles. More children are killed in car crashes per capita than by gun negligence.
    Gun control laws only disarm the law abiding and the result of disarming the law abiding is always higher rates of violent crime, regardless the weapon used. This is another fact ignored by those who wish to disarm the law abiding.
    Public corruption also massively increases. New York, New Jersey and Illinois have the strictest gun laws in the country and have the highest violent crime rates as well as the highest rates of public corruption.
    This professor needs to check his facts before spouting off about the benefits of a dictatorship. But he is a typical anti choice liberal. Anything he doesn’t like must be banned. Anything he likes must be mandated and paid for by the serfs.

  20. Gordon

    For a blog post absolutely full of idiotic ideas…I’ll focus on your largest failure in this blog post.

    The United State is not, has never been and likely will never be a democracy. We are a republic – which is a far different type of governence than a democracy.

  21. Richard Roberts

    The United States is not and never has been a “democracy.” It is a constitutional republic. The limits on the Presidential powers are there for a purpose, with an independent judiciary to make sure he does not cross the line. That is why the “executive actions” are so weak. He did all he could do.

  22. Heartland Patriot

    Hey slick, if you want to disarm otherwise law-abiding American citizens, why don’t YOU do it yourself? Of course not, like most statists with a desire to control, you want others to do your dirty work for you.

  23. craig

    No question the problem is the citizenry, not the political structure.
    The only real solution is door-to-door confiscation. Many more will die during that process; and it may well spark some kind of coup.

  24. Earl Windsor

    I saw a movie once about a supposed benevolent dictator and gun control; it was called Shindler’s List.

  25. Caleb

    Luckily, we fought a war a while back to ensure that we didn’t have to listen to the political opinions of an Englishman ever again.

  26. Saml Adams

    Once your little experiment with open borders plays to endgame, lets revisit what does or does not “make “sense”. I rather like my Republic, whether or not votes and policy go my way.

  27. grayswindir

    Democracy is incompatible with a disarmed populace.

    Note “In some ways American gun control has regressed rather than progressed in recent years as the federal ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that existed between 1994-2004 has not been renewed by Congress”

    It progressed, because the law had a sunset provision which required the FBI to do a study on the laws effectiveness. The provision anticipating that if it were successful in lowering crime it would be renewed.

    FBI study showed the law had no impact in reducing crime. There was no positive impact from restricting the rights of the law abiding.

  28. Andrew Hammond

    “…could there be a case for a benevolent dictator who understands that the ballot and bullets, just like guns and safety, just don’t mix?”

    Well, that’s the issue exactly. Dictators cannot be relied upon for their benevolence. The entire idea behind America’s Constitutional stance towards gun ownership is anti-authoritarianism. Before we scoff at the futility of average slobs taking up arms against lawful authority and its vastly superior, better-trained, technologically advanced, aggressively financed military apparatus, let’s take a moment to remember that IS what happened in 1776. The architects of the Constitution wanted to legitimize the War of Independence and put a mechanism in place so that it would not have to be repeated.

    Instead of being a simple question of safety, civil gun ownership in the USA is quintessentially a political issue. Being armed is a way of being powerful, so it directly addresses the distribution (or rather “non-consolidation”) of power in our polity. Toting a gun may not be the best or the smartest way of carrying a measure of power, but it’s an important way because it’s radically egalitarian- unlike wealth, talent, or privileged access to the resources of a well-connected social network.

    The question at hand is “How much of what kinds of power should people be allowed to have?” Or, since we’re talking about implementing gun control in a country that has as many guns as it has citizens, it would be better stated: “To what extent should the government strip the citizenry of the power that they already have?”

    Now, THAT is not such a straightforward question. However you may feel about guns, let’s please acknowledge that this is not a politically neutral “safety” issue like slippery sidewalks or defective space heaters.

  29. Accur81

    He wants a “benevolent dictator.” Scary. I want a Constitutional Republic where my rights are not subject to political whims or social utility.

  30. R. Adams

    “…Executive Order from the President that requires all firearms sellers to seek a licence and initiate background checks on purchasers.”

    Mr. Flinders has his facts wrong. There was NO Executive Order. Nothing requires private firearm sellers to be licensed, nor to initiate background check – unless they are “in the business”.

    The other commenters have done an excellent job refuting this author.

    Mr. Flinders shows he has little “Public Understanding of Politics”., despite his impressive position. Perhaps he should confine his opinions to UK politics?

  31. […] Bang, bang — democracy’s dead: Obama and the politics of gun control When it comes to gun control and American politics then maybe – just maybe – could there be a case for a benevolent dictator who understands that the ballot and bullets, just like guns and safety, just don’t mix? […]

  32. […] By Matthew Flinders. This was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog. […]

  33. debbie

    I understand where you’re coming from, we all want to feel protected and assured that those who own guns have insurance for the unfortunate events that may occur. However, the shootings are not an insurance matter, the intentional acts that people are most fearful of when it comes to guns will not insure these types of issues. It’s important that citizens are afforded their constitutional rights, while still abiding to the state laws of gun ownership. The more restrictions on law abiding citizens who use their gun for protection, the more we are enabling the illegal gun users.

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