Why do efforts to reform rules about buying and selling firearms in the U.S. always fail after mass shootings?
First off, the technical answer is "Because they don't have enough political support in Congress to pass".
So now, let's explore some reasons why that is so, which is a far more interesting question.
TL;DR: There are multiple reasons. Some are:
Those efforts mostly don't solve the problem. They aren't likely to be effective if they are common sense and not too draconian.
Those efforts frequently have big downsides.
Those efforts would be addressing a problem that isn't all that big in reality (vs perception)
Those efforts are perceived by their opponents as merely a convenient excuse to attack gun rights and a first step to complete gun prohibition.
Most efforts proposed don't actually do anything to prevent mass shootings they are supposedly meant to address.
I have explored some data points in this answer. And to elaborate here:
Some are designed to add more restrictions on who can legally purchase guns. Despite the fact that the gun used was either purchased in a way that couldn't be restricted by a specific proposal (or any reasonable one), OR wasn't even purchased legally in the first place.
As an example, Sandy Hook shooting was done by a gun that was fully legally purchased, by the shooter's mother. No reasonable tightening of checks would have resulted in a situation where that event would have been prevented.
Another source from comments is Rand corporation's extensive meta study. Relevant excerpt:
For four of the outcomes we studied — defensive gun use, hunting and recreation, mass shootings, and officer-involved shootings — we found inconclusive evidence, at best, on the effects of any of the policies.
Some are designed to add restrictions on the gun types that would have nothing to do with the shooting.
Virginia Tech shooting was done using hand guns, so no restrictions on rifles would have addressed that.
A vast majority of mass shootings involve either gang violence (which most gun laws would do nothing to address) or family violence (which, short of 100% prohibiting handguns, would also be impossible to prevent legislatively - you don't need an assault rifle or a semi-automatic to kill family members at home).
Most gun control measures proposed have significant, important downsides.
Some introduce federal databases. Some are seen as detrimental to rights of mental health patients. Some have due process concerns, like the latest laws being discussed.
More is explored in this Politics.SE Q&A.
Mass shootings have far less of an impact than they seem.
Mass shootings like Orlando appear important and ubiquitous due to media coverage, but statistically, that's just an illusion. They are extremely well covered in the news and politics, for a variety of reasons (they make for good news and thus generate much revenue for media in general; and they are a good excuse to erode Second Amendment rights so left-leaning mass-media jumps on them). As such, one gets the impression that the country is a massacre zone.
In reality, true mass shooting comprise less than 1% of all gun deaths in US (source), and happen extremely infrequently.
So as to not use biased right wing pro-gun sources, let's back this answer up by statistics by someone who's generally considered to be "science/facts authority on all things including political" by left/mainstream - Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors; 300 to the Flu; 250 to Suicide; 200 to Car Accidents; 40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.
In abstract, human life is invaluable, and preventing the deaths of a couple of hundred people is a worthy goal. In reality, given the facts in bullet #1, most "common sense" measures would have to be unacceptable to prevent all but a few shootings; and the measures that would be enough would essentially repeal gun rights set forth in Second Amendment.
The essence of this agrument was of course first stated by Benjamin Franklin in 1755:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Any gun control measure is viewed as a first tactical step to abolish gun rights alltogether.
Now, how accurate that perception is is a nice subjective debate, but its accuracy is wholly irrelevant - the fact that the perception exists is enough to force people to oppose even less-scoped, less-intrusive, more-sensible measures.
Because if such a measure passes, they are convinced it will be soon followed by another one after the next shooting (because as we saw in bullet #1, those measures don't actually fix the problem). And that second measure will necessarily be more-scoped, more-intrusive, more-sensible... AND more likely to pass because the first measure's pass shifted the Overton window.
Example of politician intending to continue gun control to full prohibition: here.
Why do efforts to reform rules about buying and selling firearms in the U.S. always fail after mass shootings?
Mainly because of two reasons:
Mass shootings are rare. People are more likely to be killed in a fist fight than by the kind of rifle used in a mass shooting.
Most changes that would affect mass shootings would have no effect on the more common shootings.
The first says that changes that would impact the number of deaths aren't related to the current crime. So opponents can correctly argue that proponents are using the current crime to further their own agenda. The second says that changes that relate to the current crime won't actually affect gun deaths much. So opponents can reasonably argue that those changes wouldn't have much impact.
The truth is that the number one cause of gun deaths in the US is suicide. Suicides outnumber all other gun deaths in the typical year. In order to affect suicide rates, we would need to reduce the number of households with guns. Considering that almost a third of households own guns and there are only twenty thousand suicides a year, the number of gun-owning households would have to decrease by a lot.
There are roughly seventy-five million households with guns in the United States. Assuming all are equally likely to have someone commit suicide, that means that cutting suicides in half would require reducing the number of gun households by something like thirty-eight million. Another way of saying that is that you'd have to eliminate 3800 gun-owning households to eliminate one suicide. You might be able to do better by targeting only suicide-prone households, but the laws aren't a good tool for that. It's not illegal to be at risk of suicide or suicidal, so they have no excuse for targeting the correct households.
It's also not entirely established that reducing gun ownership would reduce suicides. For example, Australia eliminated private semi-automatic ownership, but gun deaths only dropped below the trend line for about a year or so. Then they jumped. At the same time, there seemed to be in increase in hangings over trend. It's possible that some people delayed suicides until they could obtain a legal gun. And some other people substituted hanging for gun use. It's also somewhat confusing in that the Australian reduction in gun deaths started well before the semi-automatic ban. And leveled out long after the semi-automatic ban wouldn't have mattered (because no new guns were being taken out of circulation and the baseline already included the ban on semi-automatics entering circulation).
The problem essentially comes down to measures that could pass are mostly small and affect few people. But those measures are the least likely to make significant reductions in gun use. The kind of measures that could actually address the problems sound (and are) big. Opponents can easily paint them as too big.
Gun control proponents might have better luck if they could find ways to dramatize the more common gun deaths. Mass shootings garner a lot of attention, but they are bad vehicles for useful reform. Consider the following list of reforms that have been suggested in the wake of Orlando:
Increased background checks. But the shooter passed a background check and bought the gun legally. In fact, he had a special license that made it easier for him to buy a gun than the average person.
Terror watch lists. But the shooter wasn't on a terror watch list. He had been under investigation but had been cleared.
Ban AR-15s! First, this wasn't an AR-15 but a Sig Sauer Sig MCX (Sig Sauer is the manufacturer; Sig MCX is the model). Second, AR-15s were banned from 1994 to 2004 without any noticeable effect. Pseudo assault rifles (semi-automatic versions of fully automatic military weapons) are easy to demonize but not actually any more dangerous.
Ban pistol grips. But in the modern era, this could be defeated with a 3D printer. Yes, it is largely a fantasy that we could 3D print a gun. Guns made by 3D printers often don't fire at all and fall apart after only a few uses when they do work. But a pistol grip is exactly the kind of part that a 3D printer is good at making. It's just a shape, can be made of plastic, and it doesn't require extremely tight tolerances.
Ban high capacity magazines. Again, banned from 1994 to 2004 without noticeable effect. Also, lower stresses suggest that this is another possible place for 3D printing (with the spring bought separately). And they aren't actually necessary. Note that the Sandy Hook shooter often reloaded without emptying his magazine. In other words, it was unlikely that a smaller magazine would have restricted him.
It's possible that increased background checks would reduce gun crime. But they won't reduce this kind of crime, because mass shooters overwhelmingly buy their guns legally.
The terror watch list ban might not survive judicial scrutiny. Ironically, the Republican proposals denounced by gun control proponents might actually do more to effectively block gun sales, as they have more due process protections and would be better positioned to face the courts.
And that brings us to the final problem. In today's partisan atmosphere, failed gun control attempts may help incumbents on both sides of the issue. A failed attempt keeps the issue alive and keeps gun control proponents motivated. And thwarting the attempt energizes gun control opponents. Since incumbents typically gather more contributions than challengers, increased contributions tend to favor them. So neither side has an incentive to compromise. Any compromise would kill fundraising for both sides.
This question is currently under bounty, as there were two new shootings. These shootings have several characteristics of other recent shootings:
- Both shooters passed background checks.
- Both shooters were left-wing.
The Dayton shooter was relatively obviously left-wing. He was an Elizabeth Warren supporter who openly advocated socialism. Further, he should not have been allowed to have a gun, as he was a known risk to engage in a mass shooting from high school. Once again, the Barack Obama changes to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline have an effect well after their immediate impact. This was also true in the Parkland shooting.
It's less obvious that the El Paso shooter was left-wing. Many outlets are using his anti-Hispanic views to label him as right-wing. But look at what mattered to him. He didn't have right-wing reasons to dislike Hispanics. His views on Hispanics were that they cause environmental damage. He was (and is) a radical, left-wing environmentalist. He very well may have been triggered by the recent Democratic primary debate's claims that the next ten years will be critical for the environment.
Once again, the proposed reforms are
- Increase background checks, even though both shooters passed them.
- Ban guns that look a certain way, even though there's no evidence that the shooters wouldn't have just gotten different guns with the same firing characteristics.
The problem in terms of mass shootings is not the rules about buying and selling firearms. The problem is that during the Obama administration, people like the Dayton shooter were not properly labeled as criminals. As a result, they are able to pass background checks. Another problem is that there has been insufficient work to infiltrate the kind of violent, left-wing groups that support those like the El Paso shooter. There has been a lot of work to infiltrate right-wing groups, but left-wing groups like antifa get a pass.
One factor that is not mentioned is demographic differences, practical politics, and how the Constitution allocates representatives. Here's a link to a map showing support for gun control by Congressional district: https://www.isidewith.com/map/2Y5/support-for-gun-control#z5 It's pretty obvious that there is strong support only in a half-dozen or so major urban centers. The more rural areas, particularly western & southern states, have weak support, or a majority opposed.
You also need to understand that for many of those opposed to increased gun control, it is a "hot button" issue; one which makes it unlikely that they'd vote for a candidate who favors more control.
So you have two factors at play. First, those mostly rural states get to elect two Senators, just as the more urban states do. Those Senators are not likely to be (re)elected if they support a position with which many of their constituents strongly disagree, and there are enough of them to block Senate approval of any new laws.
Second, even in the states where there is a majority in favor, that majority is unlikely to be evenly distributed. (For instance, California & Oregon.) So the Congressional Representatives from the more opposed parts of those states are likewise unlikely to vote in favor, lest they anger a substantial part of their constituency.
So this really seems to be a case of the Constitution working as intended to prevent regional majorities from dominating the rest of the country.
- Amending the constitution is a very difficult task, rarely done, and only then with overwhelming support.
- Repealing the second amendment alone doesn't ban guns. It just makes the matter less clear at best.
- Adding an amendment that allows congress to make the stricter laws about guns is fraught with problems that have nothing to do with guns and you'll find with any contraband item.
- Passing gun laws is a good political dream. Enforcing strict gun laws is a logistical nightmare (also a dream).
- Those in opposition are to Gun Reform in the United States are very likely to not give up quietly on the matter.
- As a general rule of any political reform, it is easier to build a political opposition to a proposed law than it is to build political support. Those trying to make the change have to make arguments that the change is for the better without proof. It's easier to resist.
Because of the constitution, which has a few broad legal interpretations that tie Government's hands and not just on gun control. As a general principle, the only legal entity that can violate the constitution is the government. It's also generally understood that the following three things are true about what the government can and cannot do:
If the Constitution says the government can do it, than the government can do it (called the no duh rule).
If the Constitution says the Government cannot do it, than the government cannot do it (also a No duh rule. Blocking the government from doing things is what most of the Bill of Rights is all about.).
If the Constitution does not say anything that allows the government can do a thing nor does it say the government cannot do a thing, than the government still cannot do a thing (again, spelled out in the 9th amendment which says in prettier words that no one should ever assume that the people do not have a right to do a thing just because the Constitution doesn't list the right, and the 10th Amendment which blocks the government from doing anything which hasn't been explicitly discussed in the constitution.).
With that in mind, we can now discuss the reforms and in fact, we have precedence for how we can get the government to ban things that is historical.
First, we know that the 2nd Amendment is interpreted as allowing people to own arms (guns are thought up first, but I can also own swords, knives, clubs, nun-chucks, lightsabers, yo-yos (those were originally developed as weapons), etc) and requires the government to show why a specific arm may not be considered necessarily part of a well regulated militia. So while guns are more likely to be used in a militia, nothing is stopping me from charging enemies on a modern battlefield with a yo-yo. If I stop a threat with a yo-yo, more power to me, but that's not likely to happen (hence why yo-yo bans aren't requested... people don't use them in self defense much anymore because they are not effective. If you are legally found to have kill a man in self-defense with a yo-yo, you are not held legally liable for his death same as if you did it with a gun. And go you, that's a badass claim to make the next time someone threatens you. I'm not messing with a man who killed a dude with a yo-yo, even if it wasn't self defense.)
So, anyway, the logical cry to allow for better reform is to repeal the second amendment. So let's go that route. First, amending the Constitution is hard and in 200+ years it's been successfully amended 27 times. This is an average of about an amendment once per decade, which dwindles when you consider the first ten were done pretty much all at once, one amendment repealed another one that was a bad idea, and the most recent amendment took two hundred years from start to finish to get through the process.
There are two ways to do this: Both Houses of Congress pass the bill by 2/3rds majority, and 3/4ths of the states pass the amendment in their legislatures (by their own rules of what percentage of quorum is required... only one state has a legislature with one house, so basically you need 38 states to vote on the bill twice, with two different pool of voters and there are only 99 total pools of voters and in all cases, you have to do it with the right combo of two out of those 99 pools. Basically a whole lot of people have to agree. That's the SIMPLE way to do this.
The second way is to call a constitutional convention and vote on the amendment. No one wants to do this. To the point that of the 27 amendments made, all of them were made by the first method. Part of the problem is the rules are clear on how to start one, but not clear if you can limit the proposals or if new introduce other proposals too. The threat to the parts of the Constitution people like (like the third amendment. No one has ever had a problem with that... really, it's never been the part of a major legal battle in 200 years. Don't put soldiers in peoples houses is something we all like) that nobody wants to risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For argument's sake, let's say we've successfully repealed the Constitution. Hooray we've taken away the right to own guns!
Except we haven't. We've just eliminated the fact that it is explicitly stated that the government cannot do it. We still have the ninth amendment amendment that says "Just because it isn't written here doesn't mean it is not a right of the people." and the tenth amendment that says "If it isn't list here the government cannot do it." All we've done is allowed the states to ban guns (it's hard to enact gun control measures nationally, but states have an easier time because the 10th amendment says the right devolves to either the state level laws or to the people). Basically it means the courts would have to address the matter of if it's a state or people's right (and currently it's the right of the people by SCOTUS rule) but it could be found that states may ban guns if they so wish, but it won't be uniform across the nation. California might ban guns, but Texas won't.
Now, wait. Didn't the constitution once ban booze? That was a thing!
Actually, no, the constitution never banned booze, it allowed for the banning of booze. "The Prohibition Amendment" or 18th Amendment does not have any possible reading that bans booze. All it does is grant the federal government the power to regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages. Congress enacted a certain law that banned the sale, but under the 18th Amendment, they could also write a law that made beer legal but not whiskey or some other option. In fact, the law couldn't totally ban selling alcohol. It still had to comply with the first amendment and certain religions did use the consumption alcohol in religious ceremonies and production and sale for those reasons was exempt. Additionally, none of the ingredients to make alcohol was banned as they are common to other products. And while telling people how to break the law with your product in excruciating detail is not protected free speech, warning people to not break the law by doing certain things is perfectly legal. Thus resulting in the sale of grapes with a warning label that read like a cookbook for wine (Warning: Storing this product with sugar and yeast for extended periods of time in an oxygen deprived environment can result in a chemical reaction that creates illicit alcoholic beverage. We are not responsible for any adverse actions taken against the user for improper storage of this product.), and a few even list the exact ratio of ingredients that would cause the breech of the law. You know, for... safety reasons...
Suffice to say, the law was broken often, repeatedly, and with intent and the government was woefully unequipped to enforce the new law. People didn't stop drinking, they drank more. And you couldn't stop people from buying things to make alcohol, because most had non-alcoholic products that could be made from them, or even eaten outright themselves. Additionally, since it was now a federal power exclusively, the states couldn't enforce the ban. Most federal level crimes have a state level crime and while both the state and feds can enforce the crime anywhere in the U.S., the States usually enforce it. The feds only jump in if it's not a state crime, or crosses state or national borders, or if the state doesn't enforce their law. Consider Jessie Smollet, who is not being charged by Illinois, but is still under investigation for postal fraud, which is a federal crime that Illinois couldn't enforce even if it wanted to.
So we added another amendment to remove the 18th amendment, which meant that now the sale and production of alcohol was no longer in the constitution, which means that alcohol was again not commented on in the constitution and thus wasn't something the federal government could make laws about, so all Federal laws were null and void. States and local governments still could, but most didn't because they wanted to tax the sale and a ban on sales defeats that goal (a few localities are dry by law, but it's not nearly universal. The factory that produces Jack Daniels is famously located in a county that is dry by law (for sale purposes, not production purposes, allowing Jack to still make and sell whiskey, just not to stores in its home county or in the gift shop at the end of the factory tour. Samples are free, which means no sale involved... so...).
So, why are we talking about alcohol when the question is about guns? Well, as two great things that should NEVER go together, the principal still holds: Prohibition doesn't work when the majority of the population doesn't agree. While it was cited that 75 million house holds have at least one gun, that's households and the amount of gun owners varies wildly. Many gun owners do own multiple guns and surveys suggest that the majority of gun holders own more than one. And it's difficult to specify a typical average number because a lot of admitted owners and admitted multiple owners refuse to answer to a specific number other (other than more than one. Some don't even respond if they are even owners.). Many see firearms as a a security measure for their home and one of the first rule of any security feature is to not discuss specifics of that feature with people who don't need to know. To say nothing of the people being surveyed who own guns illegally.
A better statistic is that in the United States, for a population of 100,000 people, there are 105,000 guns (both legal and illegal). Or more simply put, there are more publicly available guns than there are people to fire them. Now, the problem with Prohibition is it wasn't agreed about by most Americans and the government got so fed up with trying to enforce it, that it finally gave up and said we don't want to do this. And to this day, you don't hear a lot about the feds arresting pot smokers in Colorado even though they do have jurisdiction to enforce drug laws there, do you?
So take all that, and then add that many gun owners meet the threat of ban or tougher restrictions with a defiant "You and what army" attitude. And before you answer with "um... the United States army, duh" keep in mind the constitution has some pretty hard rules about using the army against the citizens of the U.S. So it falls on law enforcement, which is a bit more on par with your average citizens. And the typically don't get involved when the states can do it. There are some states that do not want to enforce immigration laws for the feds... taking a bullet for the feds is a much taller order than detaining someone who overstayed his visa.