JUST OVER THREE months ago, a troubled 20-year-old man shot to death twenty children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Americans, and indeed the rest of the world, were shocked by the latest in a string of mass murders using high-powered weapons in the US. The facts that the Newtown massacre took place in the supposedly safe haven of a school, and that so many of the victims were young children, made it even more horrifying. The fact that that the massacre was perpetrated with weapons that were owned legally provoked outrage in many quarters and prompted calls for stricter gun control laws, including a renewal of the expired ban on assault weapons in the US.
Uncharacteristically, President Barack Obama was visibly emotional and actually tearful in the wake of the tragedy. He subsequently argued forcefully that there was a need “to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics;” claimed that he would use “whatever power this office holds” to this end; and maintained that gun control would be a “central issue” in his second term. He also established a gun violence task force to be led by Vice President Joe Biden.
‘Everything should be on the table’
Additionally, and even more significantly, Democratic politicians from gun-friendly states, such as US Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, signalled that they were open to stricter gun laws. Senator Manchin stated that “[T]his (Newtown) has changed the dialogue… everything should be on the table… I don’t know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle.” This marked the first occasion the resolutely pro-gun Senator Manchin ever wobbled. Meanwhile, the extremely powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) went into hiding, only to emerge several days later with a ludicrous and widely panned suggestion that armed police officers should be present in every American school.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California announced that she would seek to reinstate the assault weapon ban that had been in effect from 1994 to 2004, when it lapsed. And the polls conducted after the Newtown massacre occurred revealed that 55 per cent of Americans were supportive of the ban. Many observers believed that the one positive outcome of an horrific tragedy would be stricter, more sensible gun laws in the US. I was one of them. In December, I expressed hope in my regular IrishCentral.com column and on George Hook’s Newstalk radio programme that Newtown could be a “game changer” on the gun issue.
Removing assault weapon ban to save package
I was very wrong, unfortunately. This week, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that a ban on assault weapons was being removed from a package of gun control measures currently being considered on Capitol Hill. The tactical reason for doing so is that the proponents of an assault weapons ban don’t have the votes, and the entire package of legislation – tougher background checks, harsher punishments for trafficking in guns, enhanced school safety measures, etc. – could fall as a result. Senator Reid is in the business of counting votes and, as of now, even after Newtown, less than 40 out of 100 US Senators support a ban on assault weapons. As one newspaper editorial opined, “Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is smiling.”
Perhaps my glaring political miscalculation can be explained by the fact that I don’t really understand the US gun culture any better than people do on this side of the Atlantic. Growing up in Boston, I can count on one hand the number of relatives, neighbours and friends who owned any kind of firearm – and the few who did were generally regarded as somewhat eccentric. Ironically, the first time I ever handled and fired a gun was here in the West of Ireland on the land behind my cousin’s home. He’s an avid hunter, but it wasn’t for me. If I was from another part of the country, however, it might be an altogether different story.
If Newtown won’t provoke stricter gun laws, what will?
Back in the US, proponents of an assault weapons ban are disappointed, yet believe that tighter regulation of background checking for gun purchasers will be approved by this Congress. Some, like Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have recognised from an early stage that an assault weapon ban was destined to be an “uphill battle” and “a marathon effort, not a sprint.” I only wish that I was similarly undaunted.
If less than 40 US Senators favour a ban on assault weapons in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of innocent children and teachers, can such a ban ever pass? Crucially, the Newtown massacre was carried out with guns that were owned legally. One would think this reality fatally undermines the NRA’s mantra that guns used to perpetrate violence are almost always obtained illegally and, as such, gun control is futile. Yet still, only a minority of elected officials in the upper house of the US Congress is willing to cross the line in the sand the NRA has drawn on assault weapons.
After Newtown, I was optimistic that the US might commence a steady, albeit slow, arduous and hard fought, journey toward gun laws and policies that the rest of the civilised world would regard as sane. I’m no longer optimistic. I despair.
Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway.