‘And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations’ Barack Obama 2008
Another senseless school massacre in the USA, this time in Newtown, Connecticut, another bout of soul searching as the ‘debate’ veers between the limiting of public access to lethal weaponry and complete freedom to buy any firearm you want. The very parameters of the discussion remind most of us not in the US of the profound differences between America and other democracies when it comes to the gun. President Obama may yet sign an Executive Order banning Assault Rifles. On gun control, sadly, this may be the limit of his authority but he needs to do so much more.
The second amendment to the US Constitution allows that ‘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’. This wording, from the days of muskets and rebellion against the perfidious British, is used to sanction the sale and licensing of millions of small firearms in the USA every year and the National Rifle Association (NRA) isn’t slow about using a nearly 250 year old proclamation to promote their lethal business interests. For most Europeans, it is simply incomprehensible how and why some in the the richest country on Earth can allow such carnage then quote long dead political philosophers for justification.
In most Western countries, it is difficult to buy a gun and there’s a mildly to seriously onerous responsibility to keeping one once bought. This should not encourage a sense of superiority but does lead to the obvious question…what makes ‘us’ and the US so different? Central authority has always been stronger and around for longer in Europe, America is relatively new country and there’s always been a Southern US outlook suspicious of federal government (see the Obama quote which got him into so much trouble four years ago) dating from pre-Civil War to today.
So why are the Democrats not pushing gun control a lot harder? A big, and depressing reason, is systemic; rural representatives need to get elected to change things and with the consensus of only two weeks ago that gun control should be minimal, change (if it comes) is more likely to be painfully incremental than swift and effective. Like the Death Penalty, gun control became, for many seeking electoral office, one of the ‘third rails’ of American domestic politics. Despite most Democrats supporting restricting legislation, the NRA and Republicans have used it as a ‘wedge’ issue to stifle debate.
Yet this moment can be an opportunity to change the terms of the discussion. By bringing in a ban on assault weapons, President Obama can begin a process of meaningful gun control in the US. The pessimists might say that such transformations will never take place but a newly elected Obama is also a newly mandated President; now is the time to use that capital before the warranty expires.
Anyone who saw the NRA Press Conference will have been aghast at their response to the Newtown shooting. More guns, armed teachers, a national register for the mentally ill; the NRA has shown itself to be a ludicrous, dangerous and lunatic organisation where guns (they say) are not only a constitutional right but a human one also. There’s little that can be done to change the extremist view. But there are those even in the NRA, and more moderate views among Independent voters and Centrist Republicans (yes, there are some left) who believe that gun control isn’t the Government coming into their Living Rooms. Obama needs not only to change facts on the ground through regulation but also to foster a change in the culture and this is a long term project; no time (tragically) like the present for starting though.
The electoral cycle in the US is relentless but it can not be used as a bulwark to meaningful change. Now is the time to begin to make America a safer place for all its citizens. Obama can start to change the terms of the debate and ask, fundamentally, do you feel safer with gun laws the way they are today or would you feel more protected where guns aren’t in the hands of the citizenry? By all means act decisively but try to change the culture too; too many lives are at stake.