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Why don't they just ban guns?

Mike McCartney

12th June 2022

The obvious answer is the 2nd Amendment

But when it comes to much tighter restrictions at federal level, the answer is Congress.

Attempts by legislators in Washington to limit access to certain types of guns is a good case study on how well Congress performs its legislative function.

A classic question in US politics goes along the lines of asking why it is easier for Congress to defeat legislation than to pass it.

Incredibly, thousands of bills are introduced in Congress each year, but very few make it into law. And even then, many of them are fairly minor pieces of legislation - often they are ceremonial and involve things like renaming streets or buildings (in the 115th Congress, a post office in Charlottesville, Virginia, was renamed after an earlier attempt chose the wrong location!). The chance of a major policy proposal becoming law is extremely slim.

There are a number of key reasons for this. If you have study the US legislature, you will no doubt be familiar with them. In short, the legislative process is a lengthy one, extremely complicates, and contains multiple hurdles where a bill can die.

The power of committees. Here bills can be “pigeonholed’ and never see the light of day again. If it proceeds, it will be subject to a series of attempted amendments at the ‘mark up’ stage. This slows down the progress of the bill. If it gets out of committee (and about 90% of bills don’t) it goes to the floor of each chamber. Here, again, there is the possibility that bill will simply run out of time. And in the Senate, of course, there is the prospect of the filibuster. Although there are some famous cases of bill being talked out by Senators, it is more likely that the bill will be subject to endless procedural amendments that burden officials.

Some would argue that the framers of the Constitution deliberately designed the process to be cumbersome and complex in order to limit the power of government. But the creation of separate institutions with shared powers was intended to limit the reach of anyone branch of government.

The modern Congress is seen by many to be dysfunctional (see here), suffering from record low approval ratings, with a level of party division that only be described as hyper-polarisation.

So recently we heard reports that a gun bill pushed through by House Democrats (see CNN report here) was unlikely to receive sufficient support in the Senate. But in recent days, a much more moderate bill with origins in the Senate might have legs (see NY Times report here). Who said politics was the art of compromise?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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