America’s deadliest school shooting occurred one day before the 221st anniversary of the adoption of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear arms.
Our gun laws might look strange across the Atlantic, where murder rates are small compared to the 10,000 people per year who die here from gunshot wounds.
Because our civic debates over gun laws are rooted in the constitution, they have a fixed foundation. Conversations get heated when the founding fathers are invoked and to some extent this elevation of gun rights keeps debates decidedly abstract. This tendency is reinforced by American culture and mythology, the settling of the West by pioneers and the centrality of guns in American movies ranging from John Wayne to the Godfather. It is a symbol of independence.
A mass killing as horrific as this – involving mostly kindergarten students – has a way of grounding gun debates in the actual body count, if only for a time.
More than 200 Americans have been killed in mass shooting incidents in the last five years alone. The pattern is clear and the problem seems to be escalating: a mentally ill young man gets his hands on guns and massive amounts of ammunition. In the last six months alone we have seen slaughters in a screening of Batman in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh Temple, an Oregon Mall and now this.
But the reasonable policy debate that should emerge in the wake of each killing is stalled. We are numbed to the violence and hemmed in by a form of political correctness pushed by the right which says that it is insensitive to talk about gun control so soon after a shooting.
This conformity of conversation is reinforced by the powerful gun lobby which targets politicians who vote against its interests. As a result, there has actually been an erosion of sensible gun laws in recent years, as Republicans have moved further to the Right and Democrats feel that aggressive support of gun control is a political liability in winning over rural voters.
For example, the assault weapons ban pushed by President Clinton was allowed to sunset during President Bush’s first term in 2004. Concealed Carry laws allowing people to carry hidden weapons are now the norm in all 50 states.
And talk of guns in politics can be quickly turned into a political liability, as when then-candidate Obama was caught on tape in 2008 talking about how conservative populists “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”.
Despite that fact that gun laws have actually been loosened on a state and federal level under President Obama, to allow people to carry firearms on Amtrak trains and in national parks, he is still used as a bogeyman by gun groups who pushed fear-mongering myths that he was going to try and outlaw guns. This has a commercially coincident effect of spiking ammunition sales.
That’s why it was significant that President Obama took a moment in his unusually emotional White House remarks on the day of the shooting to address the larger problem: “As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theatre in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
The question in the coming days and weeks is what taking “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics” actually means.
Democrats will need to decide that they want to lead on this issue again. Support for reinstating the assault weapons ban, for example, remains high. In other areas, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly in recent years against city’s attempt to functionally ban handguns.
But in this policy areas as in all others there must be common ground, but it will only be found when politicians have the courage to think beyond the boundaries of special interest lobbies who claim to be representing the Constitution.