Protestors take part in a rally of Moms against gun violence and calling for Federal Background Checks on August 18, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

America’s Gun Control Reckoning

While the politics of gun violence have not been front and centre this election cycle, it’s alive in the national conversation and is wedged deep in the psyche of Americans.


  • Senior Manager, Membership Programming, Chatham House

  • Article
  • 28 Oct 2020
  • 6 min read


  • Senior Manager, Membership Programming, Chatham House

The consequences of the coronavirus, a racial reckoning and ongoing political theatrics have captured headlines in advance of the US presidential election on 3 November. While the politics of gun violence have not been front and centre this election cycle, it’s alive in the national conversation and is wedged deep in the psyche of Americans.

The increasingly high profile interventions by militias (some of which are considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and narratives about protest and counter-protest, have come on top of the ongoing issues of mass shootings and suicides by firearms to shape the way Americans think about guns and ultimately how they live their lives.

The numbers bear this out. According to Pew Research Centre, nearly 60% of teens worry that a shooting could happen at their school. A 2017 study found that 44% of Americans know someone who has been shot intentionally or by accident. Nearly 100 people die of gun violence every day. According to the CDC, 61% of these gun deaths are suicide. Few Americans are far removed from the effects of gun violence.

The dual emergencies of the coronavirus and a national reckoning on race relations, combined with a president who has made sympathetic comments about far-right groups, have created space for a resurgence of armed militia activity.  Last year was the deadliest on record for domestic extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. White supremacist groups accounted for 39 of the 48 deaths.

Guns have shown up most conspicuously in Michigan. ‘Operation Gridlock’ was the first of two armed demonstrations by white supremist groups that took place at the Michigan State Capitol in April to protest Governor Whitmer’s lockdown orders. The second demonstration saw armed militants enter the state house rotunda and gallery, which prompted some lawmakers in the building to wear bulletproof vests. Some of those involved in the demonstrations then plotted to kidnap Governor Whitmer and Governor Northam of Virginia. The plan was foiled by the FBI.

Motivating this, in large part, is a Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which has 27 words, three questionably placed commas and, according to gun advocates, is baked through with the idea of insurrection. This interpretation of the amendment argues that ‘the people’ have a right to guns in order to shrug off a tyrannical government. By this logic, seeing an armed militia occupy a state capitol and even plan to kidnap elected officials may be alarming, but perhaps not surprising.

What may be surprising is that more Americans agree than disagree regarding some gun controls. Here, the numbers are stark. Half of Americans believe there should be stricter gun laws, 57% live in a house without guns, and large majorities of Republicans and Democrats support background checks. Support for the National Rifle Association has also shifted in recent years. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 46% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the NRA. These numbers indicate that there may be more common ground than the narrative suggests.

According to Yale Law Professor Ian Ayers, a Biden win, coupled with Democratic wins in the House and Senate, might produce movement on universal background checks. A second Trump term would likely produce stasis on this issue.

In September, smoke from wildfires in California wafted through the middle of the country. People in the Midwest shut their windows at the end of the summer because the fires made their air less breathable. Climate change used to be considered something that happened elsewhere and affected others; now it's undeniable.

Similarly, gun violence is not an issue that happens ‘over there’ to ‘those people’. It is a consideration when going to the grocery store, going to work, and attending church or school. Americans live in the flames of the gun debate and they are more likely to agree on solutions than they realize.

This article was written following a public discussion hosted by Chatham House on 'The Politics of Gun Control'. You can view a recording of the event discussion here