11 Feb 2013

Guns in America: was Sandy Hook a tipping point?

In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre most of us in the media -and a large portion of the American population – had assumed that the killing of 20 innocent young children and their teachers in the run-up to Christmas would provide the emotional tipping point for new legislation on gun control.

The president, who had been accused in his first term of being too cool and aloof, was now lost for words in the West Wing press briefing. He spent a good deal of time wiping away tears and let it be known that the day of the massacre had been the worst of his presidency.

He immediately dispatched Joe Biden to head a task force on gun control reform. It seemed like a powerful coalition: from the president of the United States to the bereaved parents of dead six- and seven-year-olds to a majority of the population who, in polls, had declared themselves in favour of some kind of restriction on the civilian sale of weapons of war on the streets of America.

And then something strange started to happen. The sale and price of guns, especially assault rifles, went through the roof. Weekend gun shows were clocking up roaring trade and turning people away, even as the rest of the pre-Xmas retail market remained lacklustre.

Millions of Americans had convinced themselves – with a little help of the National Rifle Association – that President Obama was about to confiscate their powerful guns, even though the president repeated ad nauseam that he was in favour of the second amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms.

The powerful NRA, America’s oldest lobby group with a membership of four and a half million and rising (fast), was initially expected to keep a low profile and hunker down in its corporate bunker outside Washington.

Shooting from the hip

But the opposite happened. The NRA came out shooting from the hip. Wayne LaPierre, its veteran spokesman and chief executive, gave a news conference in which he declared that the only way to deal with gun violence was to provide more guns. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he famously pronounced. In his ideal world there would be armed guards in every school and a gun in every law abiding house.

He repeated this assertion on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, and for good measure added that he was against mandatory background checks for all gun buyers. This would be the equivalent of the car makers saying that they didn’t believe in seat belts because they limit the freedom of the driver.

LaPierre also stated that the second amendment of the constitution isn’t just about the freedom to hunt duck or shoot thieves in your home, it’s also about the freedom of the people to arm against a possible tyranny. Who did he have in mind? The democratically elected government of this country? And who is listening to this stuff and taking it seriously?

All this is so troubling, one doesn’t even know where to begin. Yes, the second amendment guarantees the right to bear arms and form a well regulated militia. But it was written more than two centuries ago, when King George III was mad, the average gun was a musket, and America’s states did not have heavily armed, motorised police forces. Sometimes respect for America’s constitution and its amendments become self-defeating.

I suspect the NRA and the gun manufacturers have been using their reverence for the right to bear arms to increase profits and boost membership. It is another case of misty-eyed nostalgia in the pursuit of profit.

There are an estimated 110 million gun owners in America, owning some 300 million weapons, higher than the number of vehicles in private hands. There’s big bucks in guns. And lots of votes. 216 members of the House of Representatives have received campaign money from the NRA. The numbers by the standards of American lobbying are actually quite small ($470,000 in total for the last campaign).

More important is the number of votes at stake. As one Republican lawmaker told me, gun control is now the number one issue among our members. The Republicans held their majority in the house at the last election. But nine Democratic US senators have indicated that they cannot join the president and their fellow Democrats to vote in favour of a ban on assault weapons. In other words, the votes don’t exist.

The White House itself has been playing down the issue on which Mr Obama was ready to stake his legacy only a month ago. The best they can hope for are more comprehensive background checks. Even a ruling on smaller magazines holding fewer bullets – the Sandy Hook shooter fired off 100 rounds in less than three minutes – is unlikely to pass.

So, yes, it does look as Sandy Hook was a tipping point: for more guns in America.

Follow Matt Frei on Twitter and tune in to Channel 4 News Mon-Weds this week for our special reports on Guns in America.

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