On the right to bear arms

It’s at times like this when I can feel every inch of the 3,675 miles that separates London from Washington DC.  Oakland, Aurora, Oak Creek, New York City, Minneapolis, Brookfield, Newtown – and that’s just 2012’s mass shootings.  I could fill this entire article with the names of the wounded and the dead.  It’s almost too much to take in.  Never has the American anti-gun lobby had more ammunition.  And yet, as it stands, I’m more inclined to despair for it than to hope.

What took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School was beyond nauseating, beyond horrific.  Another mass murder, another gun-wielding maniac, another tragedy.  The day itself may not have been about politics, but its aftermath should be.  And when Newtown is finally left, out of sight of the cameras and the speculators, to pick up the pieces, I wonder what – if anything at all – will have changed.

“We can’t accept events like this as routine,” President Obama intoned in the wake of the shootings, “Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”  Obama’s emotional barometer was spot on, but what of his political one?  Sadly, the promise of “meaningful action” can only be received with a dose of cynicism; we’ve seen it one too many times.

After the near-fatal shooting of Gabrielle Giffords at Tucson, the President assured the public that there would be a “national conversation… about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental-health system”.  There was no conversation.  After the Aurora cinema murders, many pleaded for a debate about the laws that allowed James Holmes to own the semi-automatic rifle, shotgun and handgun with which he massacred 12 people and injured many more.  There was no debate.  Change has been slower than glacial.

So what more can we expect now?  US gun laws are as lax as ever: the ban on assault weapons ended in 2004; Republicans, with all their links to the NRA, currently dominate the House of Representatives; and recently, the state of Michigan passed a bill which means that people will be able to carry concealed guns into schools (including classrooms and dormitories), bars, hospitals, places of worship and entertainment venues.  And all this with the knowledge that 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings of the last half-century have taken place in the Land of the Free, with the knowledge that five of the 11 deadliest American shootings have taken place since 2007.

Still the pro-gun lobby won’t concede defeat.  Still they persist with their “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” nonsense, even when the statistics belie their beliefs.  It’s no secret that the US has a gun problem: 2009 saw 11,500 gun-related homicides, 554 unintentional deaths and 45,000 non-fatal assaults.  With 88.8 guns for every 100 citizens in 2007 according to the Small Arms Survey, the USA has more firearms per person than any other country in the world – almost double the number of Yemen, the country in second place.  But at the same time, this is a country where the NRA (a group of over 4 million members) could throw $2.9 million into its campaigns in 2011 alone, ten times the amount its opponents could muster.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Second Amendment continues to be treated as sacred.  Not when Republican Louie Gohmert isn’t the only one wishing that there had been more guns, not less, at Sandy Hook: “I wish to God [that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung] had had an M-4 in her office… so when she heard the gunfire, she pulls it out… and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids”.  Not when radio host Alex Jones isn’t alone in baselessly refiguring the events, with extraordinary conviction, as a conspiracy, a staged shooting designed to demonise gun owners’ rights.  Not when Larry Pratt, head of the 300,000-strong Gun Owners of America, isn’t the only one who thinks that it’s the gun control supporters who “have the blood of little children on their hands”.

Perhaps the pervasiveness of such pig-headedness – opposed as it is to any debate over Second Amendment rights – is the reason why the words ‘gun control’ weren’t even whispered in the presidential campaign.  They’re not, after all, vote-winning words.  It’s by no means realistic to expect guns to be outlawed overnight; views are far too entrenched for that – the very fact that events like Newtown prompt Americans, absurdly, to bulk-buy assault weapons (without a moment’s hesitation) for fear of them being banned says it all.

And the fear isn’t unwarranted; it’s recently been announced that Obama supports proposals to outlaw assault weapons with the kind of federal law that expired in 2004.  For the safety of the countless American lives at risk, you’d better damn well hope he means it.  For as long as the Second Amendment and all its implications remain undebated, unchallenged, unexamined, heinous massacres like Columbine, like Virginia Tech, like Newtown will keep happening with the regularity of clockwork.

No longer is Barack Obama fishing for votes; and no longer is he seeking re-election.  And though he’s up against a powerful pressure group indeed, now is the time for him to fulfil his promises.  As Paul Waldman and Jaime Fuller wrote so incisively in The American Prospect, Obama may have reacted to the Sandy Hook tragedy as a parent, but he must act as a president.  Then, and only then, will we be justified in having the audacity to hope for change.

This piece also appears on The Daily Opinion.