Has the US reached a turning point on gun control?

Florida school massacre has mobilised anti-gun campaigners like never before

US president Donald Trump performs a dramatic reading of the words to "The Snake", a song written by Oscar Brown, asking the audience to think of immigration to the US as he did so. Video: The White House


Are we reaching a turning point in the US’s attitude towards gun control? As the country came to grips with its fourth mass shooting in five months after a gunman opened fire in a Florida high school on February 14th, most analysts were united in their scepticism – the latest tragedy was unlikely to lead to any substantive changes in gun laws.

As with the massacres in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and Texas, the temporary horror at another mass shooting would soon give way to a collective shrugging of shoulders. America would resignedly move on.

Not so. In the 10 days since 17 people were shot dead in the Parkland school attack, a slow but steady political awakening has taken hold. There is a sense that, this time, things may be different. Most of this is down to the extraordinary political protests by young people, not just in Florida, but across the country.  Within hours of the shooting, it became apparent that teenagers would become the face of this particular gun tragedy. Shaken but articulate, dozens of students who survived the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took to the airwaves to express their grief and anger.

“We’re children. You guys are the adults . . . Work together, come over your politics and get something done,” said 17-year-old David Hogg, a senior at the school, looking straight into the camera.

As the days unfolded, this student momentum intensified. Across the country, school students staged walkouts to protest against gun violence. Some demonstrations lasted 17 minutes to honour the 17 individuals killed in the Parkland massacre.

In DC, students from neighbouring Maryland and elsewhere descended on the US Capitol and the White House to protest.

On Wednesday, busloads of students from the Parkland school joined other students from across Florida for a rally in its state capital of Tallahassee, where the Republican-controlled state house voted down a proposal to debate a law that would ban assault rifles.

On the same day, Trump hosted survivors of the tragedy and the families of victims in a highly-charged listening session broadcast live from the White House.

Whether this new-found activism will help hasten legislative change is a key question as the debate moves forward.

Mixed messages

Characteristically, Trump is projecting mixed messages. With Congress out of session this week, it fell to the White House to lead the political response to the tragedy. Keen to take control of the political narrative, Trump and his aides organised two days of roundtable discussions on the issue in the White House. The president was deemed to be in listening mode – as illustrated by the handwritten note he held that was caught by camera and featured the words: “I hear you.”

But despite promises to “get something done” on the issue, Trump’s proposed policy solutions were disparate and contradictory. Among the proposals aired during a series of off-the-cuff media remarks were a plan to arm teachers and pay them bonuses for carrying weapons, raising the age at which adults can buy some automatic weapons to 21, a ban on “bump stock” devices which simulate automatic fire, and strengthening background checks – without any details over whether this would involve tweaking the current system or introducing new measures.

Trump critics point out that the president’s apparent will to take on board the concerns of worried citizens is unlikely to be followed through – after all, he promised to work with Democrats to find a legislative solution for undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers”, only to abandon his promises when the discussions began in earnest.

The president’s political need to keep conservative supporters such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) on board was also all too apparent this week, as he underlined his Second Amendment credentials during his CPAC speech on Friday.

Tough battle

An equally tough battle will be keeping Congress on board. Although the president spoke to several significant figures on Capitol Hill by phone about possible legislative measures, senior Republicans like House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, both gun supporters, have been relatively quiet since the Florida tragedy.

Convincing Republican members of Congress, most of whom receive significant financial and political support from the NRA, to reform the US’s gun laws will be challenging.

Worryingly for the NRA, however, there are signs that some Republicans are being forced to reassess their stance.

Florida senator Marco Rubio, a long-time defender of Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms, indicated this week that he would be willing to consider backing new regulations on high-capacity magazines.

Confronted by constituents during a televised town-hall-style debate in Florida on Wednesday night, Rubio’s predicament was on full view as he tried to reassure his increasingly frustrated community that he could ensure their safety, while at the same time keeping his Republican support base on side.

In swing states such as Florida, gun control could emerge as a significant electoral issue both at state and national level.

Whatever change to gun laws arises from the Florida school shooting, it is likely to be minimal. But as the history of political activism shows, big change often begins with small steps.

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