Friday 15 December 2017

The brick wall facing gun-control campaigners

Barack Obama vowed to take action after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, but no laws have been enacted. Niall stanage asks why even the US president cannot beat the powerful gun lobby in America

Call for change: A vigil in front of the White House on Sunday in support for the victims and their families who were killed in the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Call for change: A vigil in front of the White House on Sunday in support for the victims and their families who were killed in the Orlando nightclub massacre.

The list of massacres keeps growing. Last weekend's atrocity at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, was the worst mass shooting in US history. Forty-nine people were killed.

But the roll is long. And, for many people, it is only the most recent or most gruesome entries that stick in the mind.

We remember the unspeakable events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children and six adults were shot dead in December 2012.

Still fresh in the memory are the 14 people who were killed in San Bernardino, California last December. So, too, are the nine African-American churchgoers, shot dead at their prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, one year ago today.

Some might even recall the 32 people killed at a university called Virginia Tech in 2007 - a death-toll that stood atop the all-time list of shooting horrors until Orlando supplanted it.

But how many other violent deaths have slipped from the public mind? How many people could recall unprompted the six people killed when an embittered ex-employee returned, gun-in-hand, to a signage company in Minnesota in September 2012?

Or the six people killed by a white supremacist at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin the month before? Or the 12 killed in a cinema in Colorado the month before that?

There are plenty of differences between each of those tragedies- not least the divergent motives of the killers.

But the deaths all came from the barrel of a gun. Yet the number of truly significant gun-control laws enacted in recent years is zero.

It's enough to bring a person to tears - even when the person is the President of the United States.

This January, Barack Obama spoke at the White House, noting that every year around 30,000 American lives are ended by guns. When he recalled Newtown, he paused to compose himself, brushing a tear away. "Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad," he said.

Obama had called the news conference to announce new executive actions - presidential orders that do not require votes in Congress - aimed at curbing the violence. But the smallness of the measures were a reminder that, on this issue at least, the world's most powerful man is just not all that powerful.

"A number of the executive actions he plans are only suggested 'guidance' for federal agencies, not binding regulations," the New York Times noted.

"They were framed mostly as clarifying and enforcing existing law, not expanding it. And many of those measures rely on hefty funding increases that a Republican-led Congress is almost certain to reject."

The last serious push to enact gun control in Congress came in early 2013. It was a direct response to the massacre at Sandy Hook. It had Obama's fervent support. His stock of political capital was at a high point after his re-election win in November 2012.

It failed.

Last week, much US media attention was given over to a purported new willingness on the part of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and a handful of Republican senators to consider new legislation. What they were actually talking about was barring people on terrorism watch-lists from legally purchasing weapons. Those people - bizarrely, to European eyes - are not necessarily prevented from buying guns now.

Often, the assumption outside the United States is that the American public has no appetite for tighter gun laws, perhaps out of reverence for the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which appears to guarantee the right to bear arms; or because of a popular culture that has long celebrated the gun, from John Wayne Westerns to Bruce Willis Diehard movies.

The reality is not quite so simple.

There is, in fact, majority support for broad changes to gun laws, and overwhelming support for some specific measures.

In January, a CBS News/New York Times poll asked adults across the US whether gun laws should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are. Fifty-seven per cent wanted stricter laws.

When the same survey asked whether responders favoured or opposed "a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers" - something which is not the case at the moment - 88pc expressed their support.

So why hasn't it happened?

The simplest answer has two parts: partisan politics, and the influence of the largest pro-gun group, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

There are clear differences between how supporters of the major US parties view gun control. In the poll mentioned above, 82pc of Democrats wanted stricter gun laws but only 36pc of Republicans agreed.

Republican lawmakers have no political incentive to back new laws, even if they wanted to - which many of them don't. Since their party currently holds the majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, their near-blanket opposition amounts to a veto.

Proponents of gun control have sometimes been disappointed in Democrats as well - 15 Democratic senators voted against the main legislation to emerge in the wake of Newtown.

The NRA, meanwhile, spends enormous amounts of money in its political campaigning. The group's leaders would say they are simply ensuring that the views of their membership - estimated at between 3 million and 4.5 million people - get heard. Its opponents would counter that its money and its vigour have kept lawmakers in line and cowed dissenters.

According to Open Secrets, a non-partisan US website that tracks the influence of money in politics, the NRA made almost $1m in direct contributions during the 2014 midterm election cycle, spent more than $3m on lobbying efforts in 2014 alone, and dropped more than $27m in other spending geared toward influencing the outcome of that year's elections.

None of this is to deny that many Americans do indeed revere the right to bear arms. And the gun culture of the US is utterly foreign to Irish sensibilities.

I had lived in the US for more than three years when I set foot in a gun store for the first time, having been sent to cover the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting. My shock at the hardware on display - sniper rifles, assault rifles, the weaponry of the war-zone - remains with me to this day.

Or consider this: Since no data is available for the total number of gun sales in the US, researchers often use the number of background checks conducted on prospective firearms buyers as a rough equivalent - after all, why submit to a check if you aren't going to buy a gun?

In South Carolina, a state with a population very similar in size to the Republic of Ireland, 165,127 such checks were conducted in the first five months of this year alone.

Could a change be coming?

Powerful people are trying to make it so. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has aggressively funded gun-control efforts in recent years. Just within the past two weeks, David Petraeus, the former US Army General and former director of the CIA, announced he would help create a new group campaigning for increased background checks, among other things.

But there should be no mistaking the steepness of the climb they face.

In America, the odds still favour the gun.

Niall Stanage is associate editor of the Washington political newspaper The Hill

America's worst gun ­massacres

Blacksburg, Virginia  April 16, 2007

The Virginia Tech massacre resulted in the deaths of 32 people and injury to 17 others. Seung-hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech student, opened fire in a dorm room and another campus building. Cho then turned the gun on himself after the shooting.

Newtown, Connecticut December 14, 2012

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre shocked the world, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza forced his way on to the premises in Newtown, Connecticut before opening fire and shooting dead 26 people - 20 of which were children aged between six and seven years old. Lanza then turned the gun on himself.

Killeen, Texas October 16, 1991

This mass-shooting took place in a crowded Luby's Cafeteria [restaurant chain] in Killeen, Texas. The perpetrator, George Jo Hennard, crashed his pickup truck into the cafe and shot dead 22 people - 14 women and eight men. Hennard died at the scene after being injured by police and turning the gun on himself.

San Ysidro, California July 18, 1984

The San Ysidro McDonald's Massacre was perpetrated by James Oliver Huberty, who entered the fast-food chain restaurant near his apartment and indiscriminately shot and killed 21 employees and customers. A police sniper shot Huberty dead at the scene.

San Bernardino, California December 2, 2015

The San Bernardino Massacre was carried out by married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were of Pakistani descent. They shot dead 14 people and seriously injured 22 others in a rampage before being killed in a shoot-out with police officers. Until the Orlando shooting on Sunday, this was the deadliest terror attack in the US since 9/11.

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