Can Americans Force An Assault On Weapons?
By Gerard WrightDecember 17, 2012
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).
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.
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”.
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.