Wednesday 18 September 2019

If not now, when? The tenacity of the US gun lobby

After yet another 'worst ever' mass shooting, the US administration continues to ­prevaricate at the mention of gun controls. Siobhán Brett, a former pupil at Sandy Hook ­Elementary School, explains why any new reform proposals will likely end on the scrap heap

Tears: Mourners at a candlelight vigil in Las Vegas for the dead in the latest mass shooting in the US
Tears: Mourners at a candlelight vigil in Las Vegas for the dead in the latest mass shooting in the US

Caleb Keeter, a guitarist who played at the music festival last Sunday in Las Vegas, Nevada, the site of the largest mass shooting in US history, posted a note to Twitter the following day.

"I've been a proponent of the Second Amendment ['the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed'] my entire life. Until the events of last night," Keeter wrote.

"I cannot express how wrong I was. We need gun control RIGHT NOW. My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn't recognise it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it."

The realisation that the guns aboard his tour bus were futile in defence against a lone sniper who killed 58 people and wounded some 500 from a hotel room window, brought Keeter around to the position. If this is the standard for conversion, it is very high. Hundreds of thousands Americans have not yet, may not ever, undergo such an about-face. Many of them are elected representatives.

President Donald Trump, chastened, perhaps, by the aggressive backlash to the inadequacy of his response to events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August - when a car ploughed through a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally, killing one - addressed the nation on Monday with studied self-control and heavy, suffocating piety.

The police response was "miraculous", Trump said. God was called on, "scripture" invoked and prayers offered. It was a speech about blessings, grace and strength to carry on. The "great flag", over which there is considerable consternation in America in 2017, was dropped to half-mast. "The main policy response to mass shootings is to lower the flag to half-staff," remarked Ryan Lizza, a staff writer at The New Yorker.

"We'll be talking about gun laws as time goes by," Trump said in the days that followed the attack. "Look," he told a group of waiting reporters, "we have a tragedy. We're gonna do…" he then raised his hands as though telling somebody else to stop. He pursed his mouth, pulling it across his face, catching himself from uttering anything approaching a commitment to act. In a split second followed an empty and clumsy syntactic detour: "And what happened in Las Vegas is, in many ways, a miracle."

A former New York congressman, Steve Israel, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that shed light on Trump's blindingly inelastic response. "Anything less than total subservience to the gun lobby is viewed as supporting gun confiscation," Israel noted. "The gun lobby score is a litmus test with zero margin for error."

End of debate

A stark presentation by the editorial board of the same newspaper was headed: "477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From Congress". The numbers are galling. On Monday, 477 days took the United States back to June 12, 2016, when 49 people were killed by a gunman at a nightclub called Pulse in Orlando, Florida.

There were shootings during his time in Congress, Israel wrote, that made him think: "Finally, we will do something." If he didn't know better, Las Vegas would have been one of those shootings. Orlando was one of those shootings. San Bernardino, where 14 people were killed in December, 2015, was one of those shootings. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six members of staff were killed in 2012, was one of those shootings.

An acrid tweet from 2015 by British columnist Dan Hodges was dredged up last week and put back in circulation: "In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate," Hodges wrote. "Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."

I attended Sandy Hook for two years in the 1990s, aged seven, then eight. Had I been a zealous "proponent" of the Second Amendment, perhaps receipt of that news - 15 years later, at my desk in Dublin - would have been my "Finally". My Caleb Keeter moment. Perhaps.

How can there be any doubt? That I was once a child enrolled at Sandy Hook is not what devastates me. It devastates me particularly, but the minimum information about what happened at the school that morning is, I submit, adequate to the task. Time after time, though, America has been forced to accept that this is not the case.

My connection to Newtown is tenuous and it is old. It is one segment of a five or six-segment childhood. Since 2012, however, it is the segment I cling to most tightly. It is the one most at risk; the school building was razed in 2013. I track through the corridors in my mind, replay remnants of the happiest and most uncomplicated scenes. The sense of loss is sickening, and my loss is abstract, not real.

The regularity of mass shootings in the US, their extent, and their notoriety, mean that place names alone become an acceptable shorthand. Nouns aren't appended to Sandy Hook, or Orlando, Charleston, Aurora, Virginia Tech, or Columbine.

Advocates for reform are no longer very ambitious - how could that be sustained? - instead they propose closure of minor loopholes, or changes that seem small enough or technical enough to be palatable, but rarely, if ever, are.

Each mass shooting presents an aspect, or quirk, that is hopefully seized upon for singling out. In the case of Las Vegas, advocates for gun control isolated the availability of "bump stocks", apparatus capable of turning a semi-automatic rifle into an automatic rifle, which the shooter in Las Vegas used. Despite a not-hostile reception from some Republicans last week, one assumes the proposal to ban bump stocks will wind up in the same scrap heap as other proposed checks, balances, and bans on assault weapons or the sale of guns to certain demographics.

There is no shortage of ambition among those in favour of expanding gun rights, who for the last year have been working to remove restrictions on armour-piercing ammunition and silencers, and to bring in "concealed carry reciprocity", allowing a concealed carry permit from any state to work nationally.

In February, forgoing a photo op, Trump signed a bill that did away with restrictions on the purchase of firearms by people who are mentally ill, put in place by the Obama administration. Trump said in the past that he believed a school zone without guns was "bait".

'Today is not the day'

While Trump and his serving press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and others, were criticised for their methodical and thorough evasion of the question, the instinct to avoid the subject is not at all the preserve of a nationalist or Republican administration. The day after Sandy Hook, Barack Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a statement: "Today is not the day to talk about gun control."

The late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel powerfully disagreed with this sentiment last week, and - in a development indicative of the shortage of fresh public dissent - was widely praised for an opening monologue about the massacre in Vegas.

His voice cracked as he spoke about his hometown; behind him were projected faces of the senators who voted against tighter controls in the wake of Orlando. On prayers offered by politicians, Kimmel said: "You should be praying to God to forgive you for letting the gun lobby run this country."


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