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U.S. POLITICS

Can Americans Force An Assault On Weapons?

Forty-eight hours after Adam Lanza did his terrible worst at Sandy Hook Elementary School, something else unthinkable happened in American public life: Two politicians declared the fight had to be taken to the gun lobby.

Without specifics, Connecticut Democratic Congressman John Larson called for measures to immediately halt access to certain types of guns and ammunition.

“We have to act,” Larson said in a radio interview. “We can't just stand and lower the flags and ache along with everybody in Newtown, Connecticut. Especially for these parents, we have a responsibility to act.”

The Friday morning massacre brought the issue of gun control directly to the doorstep of the firearm lobby. As well as being home to the students and teachers shot dead, Newtown is also headquarters for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, one of the largest shooters' rights groups in the country after the National Rifle Association (NRA).

<p>Mario Tama/Getty</p>

Mario Tama/Getty

A memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. President Obama promised “meaningful action” after the tragedy but will struggle to reform America’s gun laws.

California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was even more explicit than Larson, saying she had a bill ready that would remove “the weapons of war” from American streets. The bill would be ready for debate on the first day that both houses of Congress sit, next month.

Feinstein was the author of a previous bill that severely curtailed so-called “assault weapons”, mainly semi-automatic rifles with extended magazines of bullet capacity, capable of firing dozens of rounds per minute. (A magazine is a removable clip that can rapidly feed bullets into the gun's firing chamber.) That bill, known as the Assault Weapons Ban, was introduced in 1994 despite sustained opposition from the gun lobby and its loudest voice, the NRA.

The ban was allowed to expire in 2004 and until now, neither political party had shown any inclination to resurrect it. This despite the fact that, as Congressman Larson noted in a statement the day after the Newtown tragedy, “of the 12 deadliest shootings in out nation’s history, half of them happened in the past five years.

Feinstein has had direct experience of gun violence. She was 45 years old when Harvey Milk, the United States’ first openly gay elected official, was shot and killed by a member of the San Francisco’s board of supervisors in November, 1978. Feinstein was the first to reach Milk's body. As she tried to find a pulse, she told the San Francisco Chronicle, 30 years later, she put her finger through a bullet hole. Feinstein became acting mayor after the murder.

If anyone was going to stand up in this way, it was the senator 7.75 million Californians know as DiFi. Last month she was easily re-elected for her fourth US Senate term, and with a record number of votes. Feinstein turns 80 next year — this is almost certainly her last run in the Senate. A politician who does not have to face re-election can be an unpredictable force.

“We can't just stand and lower the flags and ache along with everybody in Newtown, Connecticut. Especially for these parents, we have a responsibility to act.”

Feinstein’s challenge may rely on appealing to her countrymen’s sense of shame — at an episode such as the slaughter of 20 children and seven adults — rather than their better angels In a sense, it is an appeal to negative emotions to persuade Americans that they can tweak conception of themselves as rugged individualists, well able to take care of themselves — with a firearm at the ready.

ONE AFTERNOON in late October, then-candidate and US congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona sat in a classroom at Arizona Western College. Flake was running for an open Senate seat for the Republican Party.

Flake comes from a line of Arizonans who could truly be called frontiersmen, Mormons who had moved south from Utah, through desert and wilderness, to begin to settle an empty state. Guns were as much a part of that life as prayer.

Until early January, 2011, one of Flake’s colleagues in the Arizona delegation of senators and members of Congress in Washington, had been his friend Gabby Giffords, a Democrat from the other end of the state. Giffords was doing a meet-and-greet with the public outside a Tucson supermarket when she was shot in the head at close range with a 9mm pistol by Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old man, subsequently diagnosed as schizophrenic, now serving life in prison.

But for the fact that Loughner’s weapon was using relatively small-calibre bullets, Giffords would have died, as did seven others on the scene. Instead, she sustained massive head and brain injuries but survived.

Flake winced and sighed as he was asked how he would explain the Arizona gun owners’ mentality to an Australian audience, particularly in the light of the near-death of his friend Giffords in the type of mass shooting that spreads like a bloodstain across the fabric of American life.

Flake spoke of the “pretty strong Second Amendment [the US Constitution’s prescribed right to carry guns] caucus in Congress” of both Republicans and Democrats, resistant to curbing gun rights.

That said, he also noted they were in Washington at and for the people’s bidding.

“If there was a real push in the electorate to move ahead on these issues, believe me, Congress would follow,” Flake said. “It may take a little longer than some think, but Congress ultimately follows. [Then] it gets out in front of the parade.”

So the job might be to lead, but not from too far in front, all the while awaiting direction from the rear. For the careful politician with an ear to the ground, those indications are increasingly mixed, with opinion polls reflecting a range of views about this issue.

A 2011 Gallup poll found only 26 per cent of respondents supporting handgun control. By August this year, the split was 51-47 in favour of stricter gun control laws, according to a Washington Post poll. Other polls suggest that while Americans are in favour of gun laws being at least incrementally tightened, they are adamantly opposed to an outright ban on gun ownership.

AMERICAN GUN LAWS VARY by state and even locality. Connecticut, for example, has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. In Colorado, gun ownership laws may be about to undergo a tightening in response to the massacre of 12 people at a midnight cinema screening of Batman in July.

But that is only in prospect. Last week a Federal appeals court ruled against Illinois, the single state in America that had banned carrying concealed weapons. “Concealed carry” laws grant licensed gun owners the right to carry a weapon anywhere on their person. All but six states allow this weapon to be displayed publicly, either in a holster or in a belt. This is known as “open carry”.

“If there was a real push in the electorate to move ahead on these issues, believe me, Congress would follow.”

The night before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Republican-dominated State house in Michigan voted to ease its concealed carry law.

The new Michigan law allows legal gun owners to tote their weapons into such notorious venues of disputation as child care centres, hospitals, churches, synagogues and mosques, schools up to tertiary level, and more traditional sources of danger such as bars and entertainment venues with 2,500-plus seats. The state, home to nearly 10 million people, has issued some 400,000 concealed-carry licenses.

Four other states are mulling whether to allow licensed gun owners to carry their weapon of choice to work, providing they leave it in their vehicle. According to Bloomberg news, 17 other states have approved this type of law since 2003.

The guns-to-work movement started in 2002 in Oklahoma with a bill sponsored by Jerry Ellis, a Democrat.

“Well,” he told a reporter in 2008, by way of justification for taking a gun to work, “you don’t ever know when somebody’s going to come along.”

It was written and passed because politicians like Ellis were scared. Scared of their fellow countrymen, and especially, scared of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA’s capacity for vindictiveness and revenge knows no bounds. Debra Maggart, a leading Republican in the Tennessee state assembly, had followed the NRA line on every vote concerning gun control, until she sided with business and voted against the proposed guns-to-work legislation; the NRA promptly helped force her pre-selection defeat, describing her on billboards as a killer of gun rights.

THE WEAPON ADAM LANZA USED at Sandy Hook Elementary was a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle, with several 30-round magazines. The rifle had been registered in the name of Lanza’s mother Nancy, the first person the 20-year-old killed in his Friday morning rampage. This weapon would have been illegal under a federal law that expired in 2004.

Senator Feinstein’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban applied a 10-round limit to the magazines that feed semi-automatics. The law had a 10-year life, with Congress given the option of renewing it. But the influence and fear of the NRA ensured no politician would resurrect it; the ban passed into history.

When the ban expired in 2004, the previous limit of 10-round magazines for semi-automatic weapons no longer applied in some states. Automatic weapons, those that reload themselves and keep firing until the trigger is released, are not banned in the United States; they are subject to restrictions on their sale and purchase. Semi-automatics will self-reload with each pull of the trigger.

The Assault Weapons Ban banned their manufacture. That no longer applies and they can be constructed and sold with relative impunity. James Holmes, who shot and killed 12 people in his July mass shooting at the Colorado cinema, used a 100-round magazine he had legally purchased online.

American politicians did not confront this issue when one of their own — Giffords — was a victim of a targeted shooting, which would also be known as an assassination. Will the death of 20 children and seven adults, the second-worst such massacre in recent American history (the most deadly was the 2007 shooting spree at Virginia Tech University, which left 32 students dead) cause Americans to reconsider the idea their freedom needs reinforcement by heavily armed citizenry? If newly elected Senator Flake is correct, the legislators will make change only when there is overwhelming public demand for it.

For the American public, perhaps the numbers of each massacre become too abstract a figure to deal with in a nation that has always celebrated violence — in its history, its culture and its sport.

It may be that one will be enough to make the difference. One single, small coffin, the last resting place for a child, six or seven years old, who could not possibly fathom these arguments, let alone the sequence of events that put her there.

12 comments on this story
by Mark Jones

I feel sorry for the Americans. They increasingly look like a society stuck in time. Just beacuse they have had the right to bear arms in the past, many seem to consider it an inalieanble right.

The pro-gun lobby's response is to simply say that the Principal should have had access to firearms. This response is quite gobsmacking as it would mean the militarisation of schools and the training of staff to kill.

The Democrats will have to strike while iron is hot, just like John Howard did after the Port Arthur massacre. I wish them luck.

December 18, 2012 @ 11:56am
by dazeddazza

The so called "mother" of the killer possessed assault weapons. What real need has a mother for this type of weapon, and then, to teach her kids to use them?? What a sad indictment on American society who accept this type of thing, and then indulge in much wailing and nonsensical religious pleas and prayers when kids are murdered. Get their noses out of the bible and then into the faces of the elected representatives to have something done.

December 18, 2012 @ 4:14pm
by DJ

A law making carrying a gun at a school,shopping centre (mall), hospital illegal will only affect the law abiding citizen, not the crazy maniac/armed robber.

While it is easy to purchase firearms and ammunition any laws restricting their use are almost completely pointless.

Any law has to start at the supply of weapons not how they are used, and because of the huge number of guns in circulation would take decades before guns would be hard to come by. You have to ask the question "How will this law affect criminals, if at all".

If laws as stringent as Australia's (just an example) were passed tomorrow it would take decades for the availability of (now) blackmarket firearms in the USA to be affected.

December 18, 2012 @ 11:09pm
by Peter Nakitch

The sad thing is I see that nothing significant will happen in the U.S. as ultimately 'rights' (and political survival) are more important than the lives of individuals, even children. And so this will happen again and again and again.

December 18, 2012 @ 11:10pm
by Kristin Moore

Let's not forget the other statistics - injuries caused by guns, suicide by gun and accidental shooting. This study is instructive http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9715182 and illuminating - particularly in light of gun lobbyists claims that people need to carry guns for 'self defence'. There is quite a decent literature review here as well http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/gun-threats-and-self-defense-gun-use/index.html and here http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html

December 19, 2012 @ 10:21am
by Clare Tuckerman

It is increasingly clear that the second amendment right (as currently interpreted) is curtailing the first amendment right to freedom of speech, let alone the freedom to attend school, watch a movie, run for office or do the shopping free of violence. The frontier has never really been conquered.

December 19, 2012 @ 2:53pm
by Biil

Great point Clare - I wonder how this would stand up in the "land of deluded free"

December 22, 2012 @ 11:56am
by Richard Ure

@ DJ "A law making carrying a gun at a school,shopping centre (mall), hospital illegal will only affect the law abiding citizen, not the crazy maniac/armed robber."

Whereupon the law is seen to have "failed" so we might as well revert to the status quo. Americans stress about the damage or potential damage their external enemies might do to them, while their own people do much more damage. And they don't even seem to notice!

December 22, 2012 @ 5:01pm
by Allan

@ DJ – How would it affect Criminals? Well in here it means there hasn’t been a mass shooting in over 10 years (For 12 years prior, there were 6). It means that petty crime is not committed with firearms (although it did not and will not reduce crime in of itself, it has resulted in a shift to the use of other weapons). It means if you carry a gun in public, you will be challenged. It means if Law enforcement detects you acquiring such weapon, you can be arrested before the crime is committed. At least with the laws here, law enforcement has the tools to act prior to a tragedy.

December 25, 2012 @ 12:24pm
Show previous 9 comments
by Mary Conlan Australia

How sad it is. America and Americans have such big and generous hearts to so many and in such diverse ways, but are so scared and paranoid about their fellow citizens. What will it take to learn to trust?

January 8, 2013 @ 8:36pm
by Lawrence

The global weapons industry have been dictating to the human race since we moved out of caves. Slavery was accommodated under the U S Constitution despite the high sounding language and now violent slaughter is touted as a right. Sensible adults are dismayed at the effort it will take to dismantle the gun lobby's puppet master position but this should not be a reason to give up. Tourists should avoid such countries for a start.

December 11, 2013 @ 10:17am
by W S McCann

Well said Lawrence!

January 4, 2014 @ 8:47am
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