Sunday 23 October 2016

Why Obama is unable to enact simple measures to stop the gun massacres

Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30

Matti Mejia (left) and Shaina Roberts embrace after laying flowers at a memorial in New York for the Orlando victims. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Matti Mejia (left) and Shaina Roberts embrace after laying flowers at a memorial in New York for the Orlando victims. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

On Sunday, for the 15th time in his presidency, a stony-faced Barack Obama addressed his nation after a mass shooting. The only thing that was different this time was the body count.

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"Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theatre, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well," he said.

Obama now makes the same speech after every mass shooting, each time with a little less emotion and a little less conviction. Despite being the most powerful man in the free world, gridlock resulting from unprecedented partisanship in Congress means he has been unable to enact simple measures to stop the massacre of his own citizens.

Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old American citizen who butchered 50 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, had been investigated by the FBI but was not on the terror watch list at the time of Sunday's shooting. If he were, it wouldn't have mattered. He would still have been able to buy a semi-automatic weapon and large-capacity magazines of ammunition.

In December, a Republican-controlled Senate blocked a bill aimed at stopping suspected terrorists, whose names appear on the no-fly and terror watch list, from legally purchasing firearms. The vote was held just 24 hours after another Isil-inspired gunman slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino. Their deaths didn't matter to GOP politicians in thrall to a gun lobby that funds their election campaigns.

In frustration, Obama announced in January that he was unilaterally signing new executive actions, bypassing Congress, aimed at tightening up firearms sales. However, despite all the publicity surrounding these measures, all they really did was clarify existing gun control laws, not expand them.

For example, Obama's efforts to close a gun show loophole, exempting dealers from conducting background checks, amounted to the publication of a 15-page brochure that outlines current federal statutes. The loophole remains open.

In order for new laws to be enacted to curb the sale of powerful assault rifles and force private dealers to conduct background checks before selling guns at gun shows or online, Congress must act. Given that, just a few short months ago, Senators declined to support a bill whose sole purpose was to keep weapons out of the hands of named suspected terrorists, this seems unlikely.

US politics wasn't always this polarised on gun control measures that are deemed uncontroversial in every other Western country in the world. In 1994, former Republican President Ronald Reagan wrote to Congress urging them to "listen to the American public" and support Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban - a ban that lasted for 10 years before it expired.

In 2012, after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, fresh efforts were made in Congress to renew that ban. Not even the knowledge that an AR-15 rifle had been used to spray bullets into children's tiny bodies was enough to convince a majority of Senators that those weapons should no longer be sold to civilians. In a country where Kinder eggs are banned because the toys they contain are said to pose a danger to children, the refusal to countenance any restriction in the sale of high-powered semi-automatic weapons is not just stupid - it's insane.

While politicians refuse to act, the frequency of mass shootings in the United States is increasing exponentially. According to a Harvard study published in 2014, the rate of mass shootings - defined as public attacks in which four or more people are shot - has tripled since 2011. Already this year, there have been 136 such mass shootings.

It is also important to note that mass shootings, although they garner the most media coverage, account for less than 2pc of annual gun deaths in America. Generalised gun violence claims, on average, 92 lives a day, or 34,000 a year, with more young Americans under 26 now dying from gun violence than in car crashes.

Road safety has improved because the government has been willing to enact strict rules regulating drivers and their vehicles. However, political cowardice means any attempt to introduce modest restrictions on gun ownership dies on the Senate floor.

This shameful refusal to act is made even worse because gun controls have been proven to work. In 1996, 12 days after 35 people were massacred in the worst mass shooting in Australian history, the then Conservative government enacted a bipartisan bill that contained sweeping gun control reforms.

Included as part of the bill was a government buy-back of some 600,000 semi-automatic rifles, the prohibition of private sales, and a requirement that gun buyers have a "genuine reason" for purchasing weapons - self-defence not being one of them. In the 20 years since those stringent new laws were enacted, there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia. Not only that, but studies have shown that gun murders have declined by nearly 60pc; while the drop in suicides using a gun has been even greater, at 65pc.

While the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms complicates the introduction of gun control there, previous legal challenges to the assault rifle ban failed and the Australian experience shows that those kinds of restrictions do work. All that is required is some political will - currency that only a new president can now afford.

Irish Independent

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