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Column: 'When it comes to guns and the country of my birth, I despair'

The answers to the gun control question, to me and to millions of Americans, are obvious, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“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 that the rest of the civilised world would regard as sane. I’m no longer optimistic. I despair.”

These were my words in this space in March of 2013. They are repeated here not out of self-reverence, but to illustrate the sense of futility and exasperation with which I and the majority of Americans approach the issue of gun control each and every time there is a mass shooting in the country we dearly love.

Yet there clearly are things about it we don’t quite get. If more restrictive gun laws could not make their way into the statute books after the slaughter of little schoolchildren and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, there is no cause for positivity.

Las Vegas shootings

At least 59 people are dead and 527 are wounded in Las Vegas. The shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, used his 32nd floor hotel room as a perch to fire high powered weapons into a crowd of people at a country music festival before taking his own life. The footage and images of the carnage that unfolded are terrifying.

Paddock, whose father was a bank robber and once appeared on the FBI’s most wanted list, seems to have been something of a loner and relocated to Nevada to become a full-time gambler. His brother has expressed shock at what transpired. He doesn’t know how someone he knew so well became so evil. None of us will ever know.

Another question posed by Eric Paddock – “The fact that he had those kind of weapons is just…where the hell did he get automatic weapons?” – is the one that people everywhere cannot fathom.

Influence of guns rights organisations

The sorry fact is that Paddock was able to compile an arsenal of guns and ammunition that exceed the firepower of all but specialist police units in the US because the National Rifle Association (NRA) and assorted gun rights organisations exert an extraordinary amount of control in Washington, DC and in state capitals. Politicians are very wary of invoking their ire. In particular, for Democrats seeking to make inroads in battleground states, gun control is a “third rail” matter.

It didn’t used to be this way. The NRA was once a mainstream organisation that lobbied for the interests of hunters and sportsmen. At some point, however, it morphed into a radical group opposed to the most modest restrictions on gun ownership, such as waiting periods and background checks. And many federal, state and local elected officials followed in lockstep.

They did so notwithstanding the reality that their constituents aren’t so sure. The most recent Pew Research polling indicates that 65% support background checks. 68% favour a ban on assault weapons. 64% want high capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds to be illegal. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last summer shows that 57% of American voters think it is too easy to buy a gun.

Losing interest as time passes

The overall trend in the polling is that men and women get exercised about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting, then lose interest and soften their stance as time passes. That’s why, regardless of what the Trump administration and 2nd Amendment champions say, now is precisely the “time and place” for a debate on guns and their place in American society.

And it is entirely appropriate that the debate be informed by the uncomfortable truths of what happens in a country where political leaders are subservient to gun nuts. Here are two such truths.

Rhonda LeRocque, a Massachusetts native, was killed at the country music festival in Las Vegas which she attended with her husband and young daughter. They thankfully escaped. Rhonda was, in a relative’s words, “one of the nicest people you will ever meet in your life.” She was active in her church, helped rebuild homes in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and “would do everything to be the best mom and best wife she could be.”

Sonny Melton from Tennessee was a registered nurse who attended the festival with his wife Heather, a doctor. Sonny was shielding his wife from the gun shots when he was struck by a bullet. Dr Melton said that her husband “saved my life and lost his.” She calls him “the most kind-hearted, loving man she ever met.”

Guns are wrapped up in American identity

Rhonda and Sonny are just two of the human stories from Las Vegas. They are two of many thousands whose lives have been needlessly lost to gun violence. It is difficult to grasp how deep the gun culture in the US is. Guns are wrapped up in the American flag, wrapped up in American patriotism, wrapped up in American identity. They are held so near and dear that we Americans have collectively lost sight of how perverse this is.

Gun control is not a panacea. Those who oppose it are correct to the extent that stricter laws do not necessarily translate into less violence or fewer shootings. Nonetheless, how can any rational person oppose a waiting period or a background check before someone is handed a lethal weapon? How can any rational person think that a constitutional amendment granting a right to bear arms enacted in an era of muskets and bayonets extends to guns that fire dozens of rounds per minute?

The answers to these questions, to me and to millions of Americans, are obvious. One hopes that they will be put to gun rights advocates at every turn – not just in the aftermath of future mass shootings, but when the latest massacre has faded into the recesses of our minds.

Hope springs eternal. When it comes to guns and the country of my birth, though, I still despair.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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