Why Democracy Fails to Pursue Sensible Gun Policy?

The Statistics Are Stacked Against Democracy: Urban vs. Rural Votes

The 2016 presidential election was decided by the electoral college in favor of Donald J. Trump.  But, despite his denial,  he lost the popular vote.  How can this happen?  First, let’s review civics 101.

Structure of Electoral College Provides Answers

The electoral college was created by the Continental Convention in 1787 to elect the president.  They rejected a “popular” vote.  There was scarce widespread information available in those early days among  only 4 million people spread thinly up and down the eastern United States.   Wouldn’t people  naturally vote for someone from their own State or region. Perhaps no candidate would emerge with a popular majority.   Also, populous states like Virginia would have an advantage in determining the winner.

There were two versions of the college.  The first lasted for four presidential elections.  The first version  was made up of by the “Committee of 11;” knowledgeable and hopefully impartial representatives from each state.  Each member of the Committee of 11 cast two votes, one for their first choice and one for their second, whom they wished to be vice-president.  One vote must be for someone outside the state in which the member resided.  It was presumed that the favorite vote would be for someone from each member’s home state so the eventual presidential winner would come from everyone’s second choice, the vice president’s pool – a reasonable compromise.

But with the advent and growth of political parties the first system became cumbersome.  In the election of 1800 Arron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, both of the same party, ended up in a tie and the winner was chosen by the House of Representatives after 36 tries.  So the 12th amendment to the Constitution was enacted mandating a second procedure.

Current Procedure for the Electoral College

If a candidate wins a majority of votes in a state then that state contributes all of its electoral votes to the winner.  Each state contributes two electoral votes, one for each senator, plus, each congressional district contributes one.  The total number of electoral votes per state can vary from three, for the seven least populous states with only one congressional district, to 55 for California with the most.  Maine and Nebraska are exceptions where two electoral votes are apportioned to the winning state candidate but the rest of the votes are apportioned to the  particular winner in each congressional district – Maine has two and Nebraska has three congressional districts.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes and to get a majority the winner must receive 270.  Hillary Clinton won 21 states for a total of 232 electoral votes.  Donald Trump won all other states for a total of 304 (2 delegates rebelled and changed their vote).  Despite this, Hillary Clinton won approximately 2.9 million more individual votes (“popular votes”) than Donald Trump, ( 65,853,515 vs 62,984,825 or 48.2% vs 46.1%).  How is this possible?

The Consequences

Today, the population of the US clusters in urban areas.   But congressional districts are not necessarily apportioned by population density.  So in  a state with some heavily populated urban  congressional districts, they may be outnumber by less populated  rural congressional districts.  Generally,  urban areas vote Democratic and rural areas vote Republican. (Why this is true is the subject of a future Pythagoras blog).   Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in Texas where every one of the major cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio — voted Democratic in 2012 while the rest of the state voted Republican.  This same general pattern holds throughout the United States. Despite Clinton victories in populous urban cities, Texas sent all of its electoral votes to Donald Trump in 2017:  winner takes all.  Even though the urban areas account for the largest percentage of the state’s  total population.

This situation is mirrored in many other so-called red states.  Thus, it becomes quite possible for the popular vote to favor one candidate while the electoral college favors the other.  This is why in 2017 certain states were labeled “swing states,” such as Wisconsin, even though they do not have a particularly large total population.   The founding fathers never envisioned this bifurcation of rural vs urban where rural districts outnumber urban but contain less of a state’s population.

This same pattern described above holds true for states across the US.  There are more rural states but they account for a smaller  percentage of the total US population.  Thus, it could be said that democracy in the US is reversed: the minority rules.  This same dynamic holds in Congress, especially pronounced in the Senate.  Kentucky has two votes in the Senate, California also has just two votes despite a huge population disparity:  Kentucky’s population is 4,436,974 vs California’s population of  39,250,017 – over 9 times greater.  In the house things get muddied due to how the congressional districts are drawn up.   The party in power draws up districts favoring candidates in their party, a practice called gerrymandering.  Look at a congressional district map of almost any state and it defies any semblance of unbiased construction.

Rural Versus Urban Cultures

The rural-urban divide is not economic but cultural. Recent polling results by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation from a stratified random sample of 1700 rural and  urban residents mirror  most other polls.

(Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpoast.com)

Rural residents believe their way of life is under siege by the “elites.”  Elites are generally educated and the ones thought to be in control, especially via the Federal Government.  The Federal Government is believed to unfairly cater to the needs of  undeserving people who are lazy and don’t pull their fair load but who must be funded by public money.  This feeling extends to immigrants where 42 percent of the respondents said immigrants are a burden on the country.  Sadly, this feeling also extends to racial minorities who they believe receive unfair privileges.

The poll indicated that rural residents feel their religious beliefs and expressions are being infringed upon.  Some claim that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.  Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those living in big cities.  Interestingly, this difference is felt by less that half of urban residents.  The major dividing issue for rural residents was lack of “fairness.”

Mostly White

The fairness issue for rural residents is relative to themselves vs “others.”  Rural residents make up a minority proportion of the US population, maybe even as low as 25% and are mostly white.   Only 1 in 5  rural residents is someone of color and  stay relatively separated geographically.  Whites believe they are unfairly treated, that racial bias has turned against them.  Not surprisingly, those of color living in a rural area do not share this view.

Economic Issues

The most recent unemployment data shows surprisingly little difference between rural and urban populations: 5.3% vs 4.8%.  But polling data  indicates that job opportunity is rather grim in rural areas especially when looking at average wages, even counting for cheaper living expenses.  One of the big problems faced by rural areas in the loss of the work force as the population shrinks.  Young people are moving to urban areas.  Thus, even when a company or industry moves to a rural area they can’t find a suitable work force.  The number of respondents expressing severe economic hardship is roughly equal in urban and rural America: about 1 in 5 say they couldn’t pay their bills and the same 1 in 5 report relying on the government to get by.  Ironically, rural residents express their dislike and distrust of the federal government while receiving considerable financial support.

Gun Ownership

According to recent polls by the Pew Research Center

( retrieved from http://www.Pew Research.org) 

46% of Americans who live in rural parts of the country own a gun compared with 19% in urban areas.  This leaves the grey middle termed the “suburbs” where 28% report owning a gun.  Polling  reports 67% own a gun for protection with hunting second at 38%.  The rest fall into the category of sport and target shooting and gun collection.  Far more Republicans own gun (41%) as compared to Democrats (16%) though with independents at (36%).  But the statistics get somewhat muddled when looking at individual states.  For example, consider Texas.  A high gun totun’ state right?  Not really – 35.9% report owning a gun ranking it 30th. out of 51 states.  Or Arizona, gun happy right?  Only 31.1% report owning a gun ranking it 38th. out of 51.  Well, how about fairly liberal leaning Minnesota ?  Gun ownership 38.4% , 29th. out of 51 – higher than Texas!  Finally, Montana;  gun ownership is at 57.7% with a ranking of 3rd. out of 51.  These statistics are misleading since the majority of the states’ population live in the urban cities where citizens are less likely to own a gun.

An Example of Minority Rules

From their new book “One Nation After Trump” E. J Dionne Jr., Norman Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann cite an example of how the arithmetic works in favor or the minority when it comes to reasonable regulations on indiscriminate gun ownership.

Dione, E. J. Jr., Ornstein, Norman, & Mann, Thomas.  (20017).  “One Nation After Trump” (St. Martin’s Press/St. Martin’s Press).

Following the terrible slaughter of small children at Sandy Hook elementary school, the Senate voted 54 to 46 in favor of a background check before being able to purchase a lethal firearm.  Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) sponsored  a bill requiring a thorough background check with the purpose of detecting those egregiously unfit, e.g., having a history of mental illness.  The 54 votes were insufficient to overcome a filibuster by Senators from rural states representing just 37% of the population.  Dione et al note that if all 50 Senators from the 25 smallest  states  voted for a bill and vice-president Pence voted with them, those representing just 16% of Americans could overrule those Senators representing 84.%

The second Amendment and the National Rifle Association

Polling data collected by the Pew Research Center

( retrieved from http://www.Pew Research.org) 

suggests gun ownership is tied to identity, especially among rural gun owners.  The gun apparently symbolizes freedom and independence conferred to the owner.  Then comes the specter of the second amendment to the US Constitution.

“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.”  

These words make up the second amendment of the Constitution.  Probably no sentence from the Constitution has caused more consternation.  Gun owners, urged on by the NRA and various members of Congress, use the second amendment as the basis for their right to own guns. Unfortunately, a careful reading of it exposes ambiguity and confusion, obfuscating its meaning.

It seems to Pythagoras that of its two clauses, the second is dependent on the first.  People have the right to bear arms (own guns?) in order to insure the security of a free State by means of a state Militia.  It is important to note a critical historical fact here.  During the Revolutionary War there was a desperate shortage of firearms for the Militia fighting the British.  It has been estimated that over half of the soldiers in George Washington’s Militia lacked reliable firearms.  Guns were created one at a time by gunsmiths.  Some were little more than decent blacksmiths who crafted guns; each one different than the next.  There were no interchangeable parts, if a part failed, the gun essentially was useless.  Eli Whitney had yet to develop the beginnings of mass production with interchangeable parts.  So, the point was to encourage individual gun ownership to assure sufficient reliable firepower for the Militia.  Nothing should be done to impede the sufficiency of guns for the individual State Militias.  These were dangerous times and the Militias, made up of civilians from the general population, needed to provide their own firearms.

The dependency of the two clauses is clearly not a settled dispute.  It seems that the NRA focuses on the second clause as completely independent of the first to  justify unimpeded individual gun ownership.  Moreover, this ownership shall not be infringed.  This has broad meeting for rural gun owners spurred on by the NRA – clearly speaking for the gun industry and gun retail.  It is interpreted to mean that Congress shall not pass any law what-so-ever that would impede the gun owner.  So, taken to this extent we have unlimited access to guns.  There are approximately 50,271 more gun stores than McDonald’s (as of December 2016 there are 14,146 McDonald’s and 64,417 firearm dealers nationwide)  The gun industry is expected to gain $13 billion in sales this year. Mass shootings and any talk of gun controls always cause a spike in gun sales.

Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com

The interpretation of infringement extends especially to semi-automatic weapons. There is confusion with the definition of an assault rifle.  An assault rifle is for military use and fires an intermediate cartridge, either a 7.62 x 39mm or 5.56 x 45mm round, repeatedly and continuously with the trigger  held.  Cartridges are dispensed from a detachable magazine that can carry up to 70 rounds.  This continuous firing action defines the weapon as a military automatic rifle.  The automatic rifle, the most famous being the Russian made AK-47 or its American counterpart M-16, is illegal in the US.  These weapons have an effective range of 300 yards.  They are not especially accurate  beyond that.  In contrast, one of the sniper rifles used by Chris Kyle was the Lapua .338 which fires an 8.58 mm  by 70mm cartridge and is accurate beyond 1000 yards.  Kyle is recorded as making a kill at over 2000 yards a truly remarkable shot.

The automatic rifle was invented by gen. John Thompson in 1916.  His invention, the “Tommy Gun” forever changed warfare.  It had a 30 cartridge magazine and fired 600 rounds per minute.  No longer was accuracy particularly important.  This weapon simply spewed out deadly force at the press of the trigger.  Its reputation was so awesome that it was banned for sale to the public in 1934 and remains so today.  But the civilian replica modeled after the military assault rifle, such as the AR-15 is not illegal.  The AR-15 is semi-automatic, meaning you must pull the trigger each time you fire off a cartridge.  Having said that, the AR-15 can hold magazines of up to 70 rounds and will fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.  But they are not especially accurate particularly as compared to a hunting rifle say the Savage M220.

So why purchase the semi-automatic rifle?  Though not terribly expensive as rifles go, the ammo is, as its semi-automatic firing uses ammo up quickly.  Not especially accurate and it would shred a deer at close range, it’s not terribly practical for hunting.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s cool, it’s manly.  And the NRA tells us it makes us safe.  From what Pythagoras wonders?  If your house is rushed by a battalion of intruders it might come in handy but otherwise not.  Really at close quarters a shotgun or a handgun is more practical.  But practicality is a non-issue for the NRA and gun owners.

Currently before Congress is a bill, H. R. 367 – named “Hearing Protection Act”  to remove gun noise suppressors (silencers) from items regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934.  Ironically, passage was interrupted by first the shooting at Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game and then the mass killing in Las Vegas.  Police departments and organizations across the country oppose this bill.  The claim is that it will make identifying gun fire and its location difficult putting officers at risk.

Following the Las Vegas shooting massacre where the killer utilized a “bump stalk” to convert his AR-15 into an automatic firing rifle, controversy arose after finding the bump stalk could be purchased legally over the Internet.  The bump stalk simply allows the kick back from the firing to bump the trigger finger speeding up firing  simulating automatic firing.  Even this device, anemically opposed by the NRA, has slipped out of serious discussion.  The NRA coyly argued that rather than having Congress address the matter, let the NTSB “review” the matter thereby keeping the issue out of the spotlight.  Sales of the bump stalk have skyrocketed and isn’t much good without a semi-automatic rifle – ring up that cash register please.


If you like to shoot targets or hunt game or really feel you need a gun for protecting your home purchase a gun.  Keep it locked and unloaded and be a responsible owner.  Seek out legitimate sources for gun safety and training.  But don’t be duped by the NRA into believing that “the only protection against a bad guy with a gun is a GOOD guy with a gun.”  Unless you are a trained SWAT team member or have extensive military training you best avoid “gun play!”  Such a situation is violently emotional and confusing.  The average “GOOD guy with a gun” in a confrontation with a real gunman in a real situation would impose a serious danger to everyone.  No one thinks clearly under these conditions and in the chaos and confusion no amount of target shooting will do anyone a bit of good.  Consider the unfortunate shootings by police officers of unarmed persons due to insufficient training under such duress.  Leave dangerous situations to the authorities and leave your guns at home where they belong, safely locked away.

Some argue that the second amendment is there to guard against an overreaching federal government.  Come gently into the 21st. century please.  If the 18th century State militia thought it was outgunned you might want to consider how foolish it might be to think your little AK-15 compares to what a federal army might bring to bear.  A real .50 cal machine gun would riddle your house into splinters.  Gun fantasies are left to the movies; the second amendment won’t help you.

The second amendment does not address reasonable restrictions on guns such as background checks, reducing the size of gun magazines, or limiting the lethality of the rifle.  The second amendment does not address the great potential benefit research could bring to bear on gun violence now foolishly disallowed by congress.  The most serious victimization in gun violence is suicide, the most common death due to guns.  Domestic violence turns deadly if guns are in the house.  And the most common killings using guns are family members or close associates.  What about gang violence and guns?  We need research here and evidence based approaches to gang violence about which we know very little.  The abundance of firearms would seem to make gang violence worse.

Can we stop gun violence – no.  Can we reduce it – most likely yes if we approach things reasonably by keeping the second amendment in tact but pursue reasonable and sensible laws about guns and who owns them.  But to achieve any progress in a democracy everyone must vote in state and federal elections.  Otherwise if a fringe minority wins and dictates policies you don’t like you will have only yourself  to blame.




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