Public outcry unlikely to change gun culture
From the outside looking in, it would appear that the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of 28 people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, is the atrocity that would finally force Americans to drastically limit access to high-powered weapons and ammunition.
But it is not that simple. American gun culture has proved immune to public outcry and political pressure spawned by previous atrocities. Recent polls taken before the massacre showed support among Americans for gun control measures was at the lowest point since the aftermath of the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999 that left 12 high school students and a teacher dead.
Weapons in schools
Consider that on Thursday, the day before Adam Lanza used a legally purchased and registered military rifle to carry out the second-worst school shooting in American history, state legislators in Michigan passed a Bill that allows licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons into schools.
On the same day, in the neighbouring state of Ohio, legislators voted to allow guns to be stored in cars parked in the garage of the Statehouse where they cast their votes.
In Florida, meanwhile, the state is preparing for a milestone: hitting the one-million mark for issuing firearm and concealed weapon permits. In Florida, the idea of a million people walking around with hidden weapons is something to be celebrated.
Like just about everything else, Americans are deeply divided about the need for, and the potential efficacy of, gun control.
Even as a nation weeps over what happened in Newtown, the reality is that nearly half of Americans legally own guns, and they don’t believe they are the problem. They believe that the criminals who will get guns, even if they are banned, are the problem.
They believe mentally unstable people, like those who shoot up schools or shopping malls, are the problem.
For every American who thinks it is absolutely ludicrous that guns – including those that can kill many people in a short period of time – and military-grade ammunition are so easily available, there are those who believe the number of fatalities in Newtown would have been lower if only the teachers who had rushed at Adam Lanza were carrying guns themselves.
“It’s madness,” says Dr Judy Palfrey, a paediatrician at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and past president of the American Academy of Paediatrics.
Palfrey’s group has been trying for years to have American gun policy reshaped as health policy, and to create a wider debate on how to create laws and strategies to reduce the incidence of gun violence.
But after the academy produced guidelines that required paediatricians to ask parents and caregivers whether there were guns in the home, and what steps had been taken to secure them, legislators in Florida created a law that exposed those doctors who asked that question to sanctions by the state’s board of medicine.
The paediatrician’s academy took the matter to court and, late last year, prevailed when a federal judge sided with them.
But the mere fact that a measure that was, on the face of it, aimed at safeguarding children could be construed by a state legislature as a meddling intrusion into the rights of gun owners shows how difficult it is to reach a consensus on gun control in America.
Palfrey said the tragedy in Connecticut may be the catalyst to launch the first serious, sustained conversation in America about limiting access to weapons.
“If not this, then what?” she asked.
In the wake of the Newtown massacre, President Obama has offered vague assurances that he is willing to confront the issue, whatever the political fallout. But up to this point, Obama has shown little appetite to do battle with Republicans who are supported by the robustly funded and influential National Rifle Association and other gun enthusiasts.
During the recently concluded presidential campaign, the issue of gun control surfaced only once during the three debates between Obama and Mitt Romney, and even then it was quickly shifted off the stage.
Obama said he was in favour of reinstituting an assault rifle ban that was passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton but which expired in 2004 under George W Bush.
Romney said he opposed reinstituting the ban, which if it had been in place would have made illegal the military-style rifle Adam Lanza used to kill his mother, 20 children, six teachers and himself.
But Obama’s enthusiasm for the issue is in doubt. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that after the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the US justice department drew up proposals to expand background checks designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
Those proposals were dropped, however, in the midst of a campaign during which Obama’s aides were wary of antagonising the NRA, and as Republicans made political hay out of a gun-trafficking case in which federal drug agents surreptitiously passed guns to Mexican criminals, one of which was used to kill a US border guard.
Violent crime in general is declining in America. But mass shootings are one of the few instances of crime that is on the increase.
Gun control advocates like Palfrey say they believe a rational approach could start with reinstituting the assault rifle ban and by requiring background checks for those who buy weapons at gun shows or in private sales.
She is not naive about the influence of the NRA, the opposition to such measures at local level in many states, and how much work it would take to change a culture where individual rights often trump communal ones, even in the area of personal safety.
“We need leadership, and hopefully President Obama is up for this. We have to have this conversation, openly and honestly,” Palfrey said. “What are we afraid of?”