A shameful day


The United States Senate’s rejection this week of a modest effort to tighten gun laws represents a slap in the face not only to President Barack Obama and the victims of gun violence who campaigned for change but to the 90 per cent of Americans who backed the proposals. A handful of conservative Democrats joined almost all Republican senators in blocking a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines and the extension of background checks for gun buyers. It was, as Mr Obama remarked, “a pretty shameful day for Washington” just four months after a mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children and six adults dead. “The American people are trying to figure out how can something have 90 per cent support and yet not happen?” the president said. The answer is that congressional Republicans are more sensitive to the feelings of the intensely committed and lavishly funded gun rights lobby and to potential primary threats ahead of next year’s midterm elections than to broader public opinion.

Wednesday’s vote, which effectively spells the end of the latest attempt at gun control, is a serious political blow to Mr Obama, who put his personal authority and moral force behind the legislation, lobbying legislators and appealing above their heads to the public. The defeat augurs badly for the other big items on the president’s reform agenda – a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws and the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Immigration reform and marriage equality both enjoy the support of most Americans but as in the debate on guns, the intensity of feeling may lie with the conservative minority. Moderate Republicans know that the conservative stranglehold on the party risks condemning them to a generation out of power but grassroots zealots have shown themselves to be willing and able to unseat incumbents who show an appetite for compromise. In the meantime, advocates for gun control will have to wait until the next mass shooting claims more innocent lives.

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