After Newtown: Rethinking US gun laws

Since the Columbine attack in 1999, there have been 31 similar incidents in the US, compared to 14 around the world.

Few people had heard of Newtown in Connecticut before Friday.

It was an unremarkable place. A comfortable commuter town for New York and for the bigger towns in the state. Now it is the broken heart of America.

It takes its place in a roll call of hurt, anger and loss the latest in a line where places become events, which touch a nation such as Clackamas and Oak Creek, Fort Hood and Tucson, Virginia Tech and Brookfield and Meridian and Aurora.

And it is the spark again for debates on gun control in a country where guns are part of the heritage, history and culture.

Within hours of the shooting of 20 children, the right wing websites were ridiculing those who wanted, if not changes, then at least a discussion on gun control. One writer on accused ‘leftists’ of the ‘ghoulish use of an unthinkable tragedy to push a nonsensical agenda that would ensure only criminals possess guns’.

And continued ‘The subtext of those gun control calls were in reality a grotesque brag – a nanny-nanny-boo-boo, toldja so celebration around a pile of fresh bodies’.

Legally held weapons

Many of America’s mass shootings have been carried out by those who had access to legally held weapons. It happened in Connecticut where the killer shot his mother dead and then with her guns, drove the short distance to murder 20 children and six adults. The argument often pushed is that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’. But access is an issue and the danger rises exponentially with a greater number of weapons in circulation.

In the hours of the tragedy, the White House insisted this was not the day to discuss dealing with America’s gun laws. Yet a clearly emotional Barack Obama spoke a short time after the statement, fighting back the tears, he insisted there would have to be movement on guns and politics would have to be pushed aside.

Ironically, Obama stood in the Brady Press room to make his statement, a place named after Ronald Reagan’s press spokesman, James Brady, seriously wounded in the failed assassination attempt against his boss.

A campaign set up in his name now actively works to reduce gun violence. This is what they wrote about President Obama after his first year in office, and after he campaigned on doing something about gun laws: “Obama’s first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure. In just one year, Barack Obama has signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than in President George W. Bush’s eight years in office”. They gave him an F rating – for fail.

If there are to be changes, it must come from the top. With no more elections to fight and a swell of public support, Barack Obama has promised to shake off his natural caution and begin the debate.

He will face resistance from gun owners who will cry it is an affront to their rights, and restriction of their liberty. The National Rifle Association is regarded as a powerful lobby in US politics. It endorses and raises money for politicians who promise not just to leave gun laws alone, but will actively campaign to make them even less restrictive.

It has four million members, and an overwhelmingly positive view among the public. And that perhaps explains why few politicians are willing to make it an enemy. 

Banning assault rifles

The Democrats remember they passed the ban on assault rifles in 1993 and paid the price with electoral defeat – organised in large part by gun owners and the NRA – in the midterm elections the following year.

However, the NRA’s political arm spent $100,000 or more in each of at least seven races for the US Senate this time around , but its chosen candidates won in only one.

The Columbine shooting in the US in 1999, where 12 students and one teacher was killed was thought to be a watershed moment in the US. Yet since that attack there have been 31 similar incidents in the US. In every other country of the world combined, there have been 14.

Flags are flying at half-staff in memory of lives lost, of families torn apart. This is a country that knows how to mourn tragedies like this.

There are commentators who suggest the murder of 20 six- and seven-year-olds may be a tipping point. There have been many tipping points here. But this feels different – as if the anger and rage and the sadness and the sorrow will not be tucked away.

If America is not ready for this conversation now, it never will be.

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