Monday 24 October 2016

At last a US president stands up to the gun lobby and pledges action

Obama's commitment to executive action to stop the relentless slaughter has been widely welcomed

Rachel Lavin

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Slaughter of the innocents: A makeshift memorial to the 20 children and six staff shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Slaughter of the innocents: A makeshift memorial to the 20 children and six staff shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

As tears trickled down his cheeks in a rare show of sadness, Barack Obama announced a series of historic reforms in the fight to rein in gun legislation in a country where gun violence is increasingly out of control.

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"People are dying," said the US president. "And the constant excuses for inaction no longer suffice."

But in an unprecedented attempt to enact gun control through executive action, will Obama be able to effect change in an area that has been treated as a 'no-go' area in American politics for the past two decades?

And will he be able to reverse the terrible culture of gun violence that has devastated the US in recent decades?

Indeed, the everyday reality of gun violence in America has become relentless. On average, 89 people die every single day in America because of guns and a further 297 people are shot but survive.

Mass shootings, in which four or more people are wounded or killed, occur more than once a day.

As I spent last summer in the US, observing the anti-gun violence lobby at work, I was still taken aback at the speed and repetitiveness with which the shootings came.

Initially, I had even naively assumed that the summer may turn out to be quite uneventful. I was quickly proven wrong.

The first mass shooting was Charleston AME. Then, came the Chattanooga army base shooting and my six weeks in Washington DC finished with the Lafayette theatre shooting.

This was on top of the constant daily barrage of reports about shootings in relation to gang crime, suicide, domestic violence and even children shot while playing with guns.

Yet Congress continually fails to respond to this ongoing violence. The biggest move to eradicate gun violence was in 1994, when Bill Clinton signed into law the Brady Bill, which made background checks on gun sales mandatory, but the bill had flaws.

Although it sought to ensure that those with criminal records, dangerous mental illnesses or who had been convicted of domestic abuse could not access guns, it relied on the good faith of gun-sellers to enforce the background checks correctly. It did not regulate private gun sales between individuals, which now happen freely at gun shows, and it was completely blindsided by the mass selling of guns online. Some 40pc of gun sales still happen without a background check.

Attempts since to close those loopholes have increasingly been resisted by the National Rifle Association (NRA). With large funding from the gun industry and a small but committed following of single-issue, pro-gun voters, it was able to create the perception that gun control was an election issue. As a result, a 2013 vote on expanding background checks in Congress was rejected. It has been the biggest political hot potato in the past two decades.

In reality, however, this is not reflective of the public will. Some 91pc of Americans support expanded background checks on all gun sales. And that's because it has been proven to work.

When laws were effectively enforced, California reduced its firearm mortality rate by 47.7pc between 1990 and 2009. The majority of Americans, even gun owners themselves, want to see this kind of common-sense gun reform.

With Congress failing to act, anti-gun-violence lobby groups are turning to state legislatures to effect local change and are finally beginning to gain an edge on the NRA in terms of both funding and efficiency; however, the change is coming too slowly for many.

As mass shootings continue unabated, ordinary citizens become increasingly despairing of meaningful reform.

That sense of despair was heavy in the air as last summer came to an end. I ended my stay in the US standing outside the White House, where I was passed the microphone by a group of activists, mostly mothers fighting gun violence, and signalled that it was my turn to read.

It was a list of all the names and ages of the victims of large-scale mass shootings of the past decade and as I read the names, ages and places of the victims of gun violence neatly laid out, page upon page, it was a grim reminder of the disheartening problem of gun violence in America.

However, my sense of anguish reached its peak when it came to Sandy Hook.

As I read 20 children's names and with each name, an age of five, six or seven, I wondered when would it be enough for America to act on gun violence? Or would the US continue to slip further and further into a state of acceptance of the 'inevitable'?

But on Tuesday, as he entered his final year as president, Obama finally chose to take action. Quoting Martin Luther King, he said: "We need to feel the urgency of now."

Bypassing Congress and imposing executive action, he aims to target "anybody in the business of selling firearms", including those selling online or at gun shows. Enforcing this will be difficult, especially in terms of clarifying the difference between a dealer 'engaged in the business' and an occasional individual who sells guns privately, but Obama is confident that it is possible and is investing in increased staff to investigate dealers, enforce background checks and prosecute those who fail to comply.

He also has plans for increased investment in research into gun violence and gun-safety technology, as well as further investment in mental-health treatment to stop murders by gun, as well as suicides.

All of this is ambitious and questions have been raised over whether or not Obama can see this clarification of the original Brady Bill truly enacted. Similarly, many fear a republican-led Congress will still have the power to refuse all the funding he requires.

Obama admitted himself: "It will be hard and it won't happen overnight. It won't happen during this Congress. It won't happen during my presidency."

But with a new, most likely Democrat, president coming to office before the end of the year and increasing numbers of politicians 'coming out' in favour of gun-violence prevention, as well as a glowing popular reception for his speech last week, it appears the 'untouchable gun issue' myth has finally dissipated.

Sunday Independent

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