Published on 19 Dec 2012 Sections , ,

After Newtown, gun lobby moves to shift the debate

After the Newtown shootings, American gun enthusiasts and lobbyists are trying to shift the debate: blame the gunman, not the gun.

While the National Rifle Association remains uncharacteristically silent, American gun enthusiasts and lobbiests are already trying to shift the debate: blame the gunman, not the gun.

The NRA and pro-gun Republicans who control the house have remained conspicuously quiet since Friday, when a gunman in Connecticut killed 20 children and six adults with a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle.

But slowly, quietly and respectfully, some in the gun lobby have come forward to shift the debate from a question of gun control to one of how to help citizens out of control.

“The problem we are all discussing is the problem of deranged individuals obtaining guns and causing mayhem,” Richard Feldman, of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said in an interview with Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow.

He insisted the US mental health system was failing Americans, not the 310m firearms owned by Americans under the US second amendment right to bear arms, which include 114m handguns, 110m rifles, and 86m shotguns.

“99.999 per cent of those guns will never be misused, and what gun owners always fear is how is it going to make it safer for the innocent by disarming the innocent?” Mr. Feldman said.

Blame society

It is a familiar argument, one that has met with success in the past.

In 1999, one day after two teenagers killed 13 at Colorado’s Columbine high school, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice-president, was on television, advising Americans to take a closer look at the disintegration of American society and blaming Hollywood for glamourising guns.

“We’re increasingly looking away at behaviour that our parents would never have tolerated,” Mr LaPierre told MSNBC at the time. “We’re looking the other way at evil behaviour and we need to really focus on what would turn students into homicidal maniacs.”

This time around, the NRA – with four million members and 1.7 million Facebook followers – is more notable for what it has not said. The NRA Facebook page has been taken down. The tweets stopped several days ago.

“They would look cruel and inhumane coming out after this shooting and saying ‘guns don’t kill people’ when there are 20 children about to be buried in Connecticut”, Peter Dreier of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department, Occidental College, said.

But the gun lobby, manufacturers, employees and gun owners, wield considerable influence and financial power that can sway government policy without a word.

Firearms and ammunition industries accounted for $31.84bn in economic activity in 2012 and £2.07bn in taxes. The industry directly employs 111,000 Americans as gun suppliers or in ancillary industries, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the US firearms trade association.

The NRA spent an estimated $2.20m on lobbying in 2012, including money to promote bills like S.570 which would stop the US government tracking multiple rifle purchases. It also spent $12m in the last election on negative ads targeting candidates who favour gun controls.

President Barack Obama has indicated he will back new policies “aimed at preventing more tragedies like this”, but so far there have been no specifics.

Time for change?

Leading politicians have clamoured for change. Senator Dianne Feinstein, author of the original assault weapons ban, said she would be putting forward a bill calling for its renewal on day one of the new congress. An ABC/Washington Post survey found more than half of Americans now favour stricter gun laws, the highest level for five years.

Other politicians have recently declared their conversion: Democrats Mark Warner and Joe Manchin, both with so-called “A” ratings from the NRA, have said it is time for change. West Virginia’s Senator Manchin told MSNBC it was time to “move beyond rhetoric” on gun control.

But how much of the talk will translate into action? US commentator David Corn told Channel 4 News that the gun lobby has in the past resorted to blaming gun violence on the individuals rather than the proliferation of weapons because it is the “only thing they can say”.

So far, the lobbying has worked. Some four million new guns come onto the US market every year and 40 per cent of all guns sold legally are sold without any need for a federal background check.

The level of US gun violence is unique among industrialised countries and cannot be blamed solely on a few individuals, Mr Corn said.

“We do not have a monopoly on deranged individuals. What separates us from other countries is the population of… semi-assault weapons and high magazine clips,” Mr Corn said.

“That’s the only thing that separates us.”

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