Gun tragedies trigger grief and reflection but little political action

America Letter: Focus turns to discredited ‘red-flag’ Bills after events in Ohio and Texas

 Guns and ammunition on sale at a shop in Sacramento, California.  About a third of US gun owners have five guns or more, figures show. Photograph: Andrew Burton/The New York Times

Guns and ammunition on sale at a shop in Sacramento, California. About a third of US gun owners have five guns or more, figures show. Photograph: Andrew Burton/The New York Times

 

Donald Trump left Washington on Friday for a 10-day working vacation at his Bedminster golf course in New Jersey following a week which left Americans reeling from yet another outburst of gun crime.

Last weekend’s twin mass shootings followed a depressingly familiar pattern – the initial shock as the news rippled into people’s homes through TV and social media, the familiar call for thoughts and prayers for the victims, and the inevitable political debate about gun restriction measures.

Much like its stance on the death penalty, America’s love affair with the gun makes it an outlier in terms of international norms.

There are an estimated 393 million guns in existence in America – more than the population of the country. But this belies the fact that a small number of people own multiple weapons. About a third of gun owners have five guns or more, though official figures are difficult to gauge due to the absence of a national registry.

As America deals with the aftermath of another tragedy, focus has turned to 'red-flag' bills

Gun ownership has tended to rise in the wake of mass shootings – in part due to increased feelings of insecurity in the wake of violence, in part because gun owners want to get ahead of any clampdown on weaponry that is often promised after gun tragedies, even though these are not always implemented.

Despite outpourings of grief this week and wall-to-wall media coverage of the twin tragedies in Ohio and Texas, there are few signs that this will be a turning point for gun control.

As has been the case with previous mass shootings, political efforts tend to cluster around one specific legislative fix in response to gun incidents.

Following the Las Vegas concert shooting in October 2017, which left 59 people dead including the gunman, the banning of “bump-stocks” became the focus. Those attachable devices, which allow shooters to fire semiautomatic rifles continuously with one pull of the trigger, are now banned under federal legislation which came into effect this year.

Arming teachers

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida 18 months ago, there were call for teachers to be armed to allow them to respond to an active shooter situation in the classroom.

Although the proposal, which was touted by Trump, elicited alarm among teacher groups, Florida followed through. The state’s governor signed a Bill in May which allows teachers to carry guns, though it falls to individual school districts to decide whether they want to participate, and teachers must volunteer for the programme.

As America deals with the aftermath of another tragedy, focus has turned to “red-flag” bills. These laws would seek to stop individuals with mental health issues owning weapons.

At federal level, senior Republicans in Congress have signalled their support for red-flag measures

Several individual states already have these bills on the statute books, with many introduced after Parkland. The laws allow courts to issue temporary protection orders permitting police to confiscate guns if they are considered a danger to themselves or others. Most orders are issued after a family member or member of the public alerts authorities.

Though they have been credited with stopping hundreds of deaths and suicides, their impact is limited. The laws depend on concerned individuals approaching authorities, and in some cases courts do not automatically grant the order. In 2012, a gunman who had previously shown troubling signs shot and killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook elementary school, despite the state of Connecticut having a red-flag law in place since 1999.

Due process

Nonetheless, Republicans appear to be coalescing around this idea as they seek to respond to the Ohio and Texas shootings. Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine, who was heckled with cries of “do something” when he spoke at a vigil last week for the victims of the Dayton shooting, subsequently said he was asking the state legislature to introduce a red-flag law.

Echoing the language of many Republicans, however, he said that the right to due process and the constitutional right to bear arms must also be respected.

At federal level, senior Republicans in Congress have signalled their support for red-flag measures. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, under pressure from Democrats for not taking up federal background-check legislation which was passed by the House of Representatives early this year, said this week that the proposal would be “front and centre” in congressional efforts to respond to gun crime, while also opening the door to further discussion on background checks.

As America’s political representatives head to their districts for the summer break, those directly impacted by last weekend’s shootings will be hoping that the political momentum around gun control, however limited, will remain equally strong in September.