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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10 reader comments

  1. Jon Wood says:

    Nancy Lanza was “a good guy with a gun”.
    Adam Lanza was a bad guy, without a gun.
    The outcome was worse because the good guy did have a gun.

  2. anon says:

    It is understandable to a degree that ordinary law abiding Americans feel the need to protect themselves. But the long term objective should obviously be for gun control. If a law banning the sale of high magazine assault weapons is not passed then the outlook is more than worrying and and the prognosis for the future unthinkable.

    Let us hope that there are those who will persist in their long term aim for reduced gun holding by the average American and persist in their quest to ban high magazine assault weapons as a starting point.

  3. David Harvey says:

    Mr. Frei and the delicate/sensitive interview with Veronique (Mother of a 6-year-old killed nearly 2 months ago in Newtown).

    Veroniques’ analogy with Sísyphus was brilliant when describing the seemingly impossible task faced by Pres. Obama facing the task of legislating for tighter gun control.

    Mr. Frei allowed Veronique almost free reign and the result, whatever the editing, showed her enormous courage and conviction.

    It was riveting because Mr Frei did not allow the topic to dwell purely on the political aspects alone.

    Brilliant quality viewing

  4. Rick says:

    On today’s programme, Matt Frei was in Chicago on his gun control crusade. While stressing the gun crime problem in Chicago, Frei neglected to report on an important point. How many children have been shot in Chicago schools? Given the tragedy in Sandy Hook, I would have thought that this would be an obvious question to ask. The answer is that there have been zero children shot in Chicago schools. The reason? Every school in Chicago has armed security. I would have thought that this is an important difference between Chicago and Sandy Hook, but obviously Frei disagrees. Too bad that the facts do not agree with the rhetoric.

  5. george mcquilkin says:

    I just want to complement Matt Frei for his indepth look at gun ownership in America. When you have a Texan who loves his guns wondering why they need the same guns in the city, two articulate black men in Chicago partially agreeing with the NRA that it’s people who kill, not guns, and that it is not up to the President, but up to those in the community to bring change, and a composed, thoughtful mother who lost her son at Sandy Hook also saying she cries every night, but then has to get up the next morning and encounter the void, one has a thoughtful examination of the many-sided picture of why Americans own so many guns, and suffer from it. This is better reporting then that done by American channels (and the BBC) – and I say that as an American who has lived in the UK for almost 20 years. Congrats Matt Frei, and Channel 4 for letting such carefully, time-consuming, researched reporting be undertaken.

  6. Laura Buchanan says:

    I don’t normally leave comments on websites but felt compelled to do so after watching the interview with the mother of the six year old twin who was killed. What a gracious and beautiful women who spoke with integrity. I was deeply moved by her and wondered why such awful things have to happen to good people.

  7. John Leach says:

    Watching Matt Frei’s news debate on TV about guns in America. The head of one of the gun lobbies, being interviewed by Matt Frei, in trying to explain the reason why the gun lobby will not accept any restrictions on gun ownership, seems to be saying that the Government has no role at all in telling people how to live their lives or in protecting people against those who would do them harm. Protection should be self protection, and that is why millions of US citizens who have never owned guns before are now buying guns for the first time. Unless I am missing his point, isn’t the logical conclusion of what he is saying that the death of tens of school children is a price worth paying to enable people to protect themselves?

  8. Mike Whitehead says:

    I have been planning another holiday in the U.S. but with so many citizens arming themselves and so many shooting I will not be visiting the U.S. again.

    Have those on favour of guns considered the effect on their economy?

  9. Mike H says:

    Being an American living in the UK for the past 3 years, I have found that this is one of the main topics I am asked about by my British friends and colleagues. Most Brits can’t understand why Americans feel the need to have guns…and so many of them.

    Those without gun rights see gun violence and the only solution is to remove the guns, but it is a much larger issue than simply this.For Americans it is an issue of rights and Federal Government overstepping into the lives of the citizens. The US is not a nation where the Federal Government has unlimited authority to affect individual people and drive States’ policies. That is what makes us unique; that is what makes us America. The Federal Government has a very specific place and in the recent years we have seen this boundary blur more and more. States’ rights are being compromised and elected State officials must stand up and take necessary actions to prevent this from happening further.

    As a gun owner I do not want to see any more changes added that remove my freedoms. I want to have the option to own an “assault-style” rifle (which by the way is an extremely vague description used by the Federal Government that allows them to restrict guns simply by looks and not always by capacity). I want the option to own a weapon with a 20 round magazine and not be restricted by the government to only 5 rounds. I want to own a dozen handguns and not be a target of my government because I do. Honest, law abiding citizens are being targeted by these sweeping changes, and not criminals. Criminals will always find a way to get the weapons they need to commit the crimes they intend to commit. Criminals don’t care if something is banned or restricted.

    There are currently over 20,000 gun laws currently on the books in both federal and state legislatures. The answer is not to add more gun laws, but to enforce the existing laws and establish a better mechanism for conducting mental health checks of those wishing to own a gun. There will always be those who slip through the cracks; those who get a gun illegally or from someone else who has passed the requirements to own a weapon.

    The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America gives American Citizens the right to own and bear arms. This is a personal right. This right gives us the ability to protect ourselves from criminals AND from a tyrannical government, which is why this amendment existed to begin with. Remember how we were founded and what these men stood for when they created these documents. There comes a time in every country’s history where the leadership will get too powerful, take too many liberties from its people, and impose too many restrictions. If the US Federal Government continues to move down the path of making criminals out of ordinary law abiding citizens, we must stand up for these rights at all costs. And if you think that is a far-fetched idea and not a valid argument as a reason to keep gun rights, then take a look at what happened during Hurricane Katrina – police and National Guard went door to door and disarmed citizens in their own homes, and in many cases they placed the people in handcuffs. These people were inside their homes and making an effort to protect their property. This happened all around the area in New Orleans and not just in the mandatory evacuation zones. Don’t take my word…look it up yourself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf8trl69kzo).

  10. Terry says:

    “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” How can people live with themselves knowing children are dying from the very guns sold in stores.

    The gun that killed the children in the recent school shooting was bought over the counter like any other gun, does it not scare the people that own guns that one day it might be their daughter, son or grandchild killed by a gun simply bought over the counter?

    Yes! We all need to protect our families in our homes.. but why Have the same guns as those used in battle fields?? Why have law enforcement officers to start with if we all can buy/carry bigger and better guns?? why have the law??

    Law must be passed that Protects those that can’t protect themselves and those are the children.. GUN Control Must be enforced.

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