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.

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