11 Apr 2013

Gun control: the brutal electoral truth

In the awful days following the Newtown Massacre the advocates of gun control, the families of the victims and that portion of the public which abhors unbridled gun ownership thought for once that the national mood had shifted in their favour.

President Obama was lost for words in the White House Press briefing.

A man accused in the past of being too cool to feel the nation’s pain shed tears in public. He followed up the emotion with one of his more powerful speeches.

The venue was the theatre in the local High School, less than a mile from the elementary school in Connecticut where 26 children and their teachers had been gunned down. The room was charged with emotion.

A ban on assault weapons – weapons of war on the streets of America – seemed like a no brainer, the very least America could do to stem the epidemic of gun violence.

Now just three and a half months later, such a ban seems like an impossibly ambitious target.

In fact the most the bereaved parents of Newtown can hope for is a requirement on universal background checks, in other words every who buys a gun has to prove that thy are fit enough, sane enough and uncriminalised enough to own one.

This is basic stuff. It should be a bottom basement requirement for gun ownership.

But for many Americans, and for the NRA, it becomes an infringement of their constitutional rights.

It has been portrayed by the NRA as an assault on liberty. That’s what happens when a particular right is protected by a Constitutional ammendment. The Constitution is a powerful ally.

Just imagine if there was a constitutional amendment protecting privacy in transport. We would never be subjected to a strip search or body scan at an airport. The ideological arguments, bolstered by the parchment of the founding fathers, would trump the practical needs of airline safety in the post 9/11 world.

So since the Newtown massacre the ambitions of the gun control lobby have shrivelled dramatically. It is now considered a victory that there will be a debate and a vote at all on the Senate floor.

Some Republicans are still trying to prevent that from happening.

If you look back at the President’s speeches from December and January there was always an ominous contrast between his emotion and the very specific language used to outline the legislative process. It was conspicuous by its caution.

Mr Obama knew that gun control faces huge obstacles from most Republicans and quite a few Democrats.

How you vote on guns depends on where you live. Democrats in rural West Virginia or Nevada will be as opposed to any limitations of gun ownership as Republicans in Texas.

In fact the statistics show that gun owners will vote against the party that imposes controls, even if they agree with just about everything else that party stands for. Gun control is a deal breaker.

It rarely works the other way round. You will still vote Democrat even if the party has failed you on gun control.

This has little to do with powerful lobbyists.

The NRA is very good at channelling the voter’s concerns about gun restrictions. It names and shames law makers who go wobbly on guns. But the votes are there anyway.The NRA only spent half a million dollars on the last election. That is peanuts compared to most other lobby groups.

The fact is it didn’t need to spend more.

President Obama is a keen student of history and the books would have reminded him of the fact that Bill Clinton lost his majority in Congress in 1994 in New Gingrich’s historic right wing revolution, not because of his Contract with America, but because of a backlash over the ban on assault weapons provoked enough Democrats to switch sides to the Republicans.

Obama doesn’t want to lose the Democrat’s slim majority in the Senate and quack like a lame duck with three and a half more years in the White House. Hence the caution. It’s about the votes, stupid.

Tweets by @mattfrei

4 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    Unfortunately true. It’s irrelevant that the Second Amendment is plainly being humoungously misinterpreted or that so-called Christians oppose any attempts at gun-control. You just have to look at some of the US blogs to see the rancid hatred of any attempt to alter the existing situation. When you can’t have a sensible, honest debate after Newtown (& I see a 4 year old killed another child with his father’s gun the other day), it indicates a failing political economy in the most frightening way. When you also see what’s going on about the USA’s public finances, you have to fear greatly for a once respected country going to hell on a handcart

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Matt,

    It’s NOT about the votes, stupid.

    It’s about what is right and decent, stupid.

    Only a chubby-faced, cocktail party-going neocon would think otherwise.

    Obama has nothing personal to lose now. All the public tears in the world are worthless when confronting these gun-crazies. You might as well spit into the wind.

    This is his final term as President. If he had the slightest bit of genuine courage he would take on the NRA loonies full face to face and expose them for the crackpots and cultural poison they are. If he would conduct such a campaign sensibly and with determination he would receive full backing from US citizens. I have no doubt of it.

    The “constitutional issue” is a non-sequitur. The right to bear arms is limited to militias in defence against a foreign invasion. In other words, to use a US colloquialism, the “issue” is bullshit.

    Until US culture can restore its more decent instincts the rest of the world is going to regard that unhappy nation as an out of control Rogue State controlled by homicidal maniacs in the Pentagon, Wall Street and Langley.

    And looking at the latest example of madness – the confrontation with North Korea – who can blame them?……….Gulf of Tonkin anybody?

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Whilst I share your frustration Philip, I don’t agree that the problem is any lack of determination on Obama’s part. The obstruction lies perhaps with the interpretations of that 2nd Amendment that the Supreme Court has decreed. You can look them up on Wikipedia.
      There’s also the problem of the 60% filibuster rule of the US Senate and the inconvenient truth that Republican’s hold the majority in Congress from a sufficient number of States that reject any gun control. Obama simply does not have the discretion you’d like him to have. He has to persuade not command. Which is quite unlike the British position where a government with a parliamentary majority of even just one MP’s vote is supreme.
      Why doesn’t peace-loving Norway pass heavy gun restrictions?
      Why doesn’t the whole EU do the same? Answer: for broadly similar reasons to those of the USA today.

  3. Garrett Flynn says:

    I was interested to learn that Australia introduced a series of gun controls in the wake of an appalling massacre in 1996. These were introduced by a conservative government led by then Prime Minister John Howard.

    A comment by a rural conservative voter who opposed the changes in legislation at the time, suggested that with the passage of time, the changes in law were manageable for him but also that he had felt at the time that he owed some sort of duty to society in general to accept new gun laws in the wake of what had happened.

    If it was not so tragic, it would be amusing that the US government spends such vast amounts on terrorism prevention, when the numbers of US citizens/residents killed by terrorist activities is small (around 3,000 since 1980) when compared with the number of deaths by gunfire (around 900,000 in the same period).

    The size of the NRA (around 4 million) was also a big surprise. Small vociferous lobby groups hold governments to ransom in all societies (the causes differ of course) but it is mind-boggling that this entity has such unwavering sway over so many legislators in the US, particularly when they do not seem to even represent the majority of gun owners.

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