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One nation under guns

Published in the Sunday Herald on December 23, 2012.

It was the one word on every front page in the United States: “Enough.” As a nation in mourning groped for an appropriate response to horrendous, inexplicable mass murder, President Barack Obama swore that the legacy of Newtown would be stricter gun control. Although he promised to “use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he did most for the cause in the minute it took to read the dead children’s names aloud: “Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Anna, Dylan…”

We have been here before, countless times, although rarely in quite such distressing circumstances. The question now is whether widespread revulsion can lead to action. The gun lobby is entrenched, its victory complete. “Two weeks ago I would have said there is no chance for any gun restrictions at federal level,” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners of America. “Now all bets are off.”

On Tuesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods, a national chain, suspended the sale of “modern sporting rifles” similar to the Bushmaster .223 used in the shooting. The next day Cerberus Capital Management announced that it would sell its stake in Bushmaster’s parent company. “We do not believe that Freedom Group or any single company or individual can prevent senseless violence or the illegal use or procurement of firearms and ammunition,” read the statement. “There are, however, actions that we as a firm can take.”

All week, red state Democrats endorsed by the National Rifle Association broke ranks. “I don’t know anyone in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” said Joe Manchin, a Senator from West Virginia whose campaign adverts showed him shooting holes in liberal legislation. “Everything should be on the table.” Senators Mark Warner, Tim Johnson and Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp followed his lead.

“The Democrats have certainly decided that this is an opportunity to break the back of the pro-gun movement,” said Mike Hammond, Chief Counsel for Gun Owners of America. “They’re clearly trying to mount a much more sustained, high-profile campaign against the Second Amendment. We don’t deny that we have a battle on our hands. My guess is that we will win.”

Christian Heyne, a grassroots co-ordinator at the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, disagreed. “I think that this time is different. The American public has been ready for common sense gun laws in this country for some time before this horrific tragedy,” he said. “Our legislators are reflecting that this is bigger than politics. It’s hard to believe that all the other shootings we’ve had couldn’t do it.”

Five years ago, Seung-Hui Cho gunned down thirty-two people at Virginia Tech, spurring an intense, short-lived debate about how to prevent semi-automatic weapons ending up in the hands of people with a history of mental illness. Three years ago, Major Nidal Hasan killed thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas, but in the din of “terrorism” gun control was barely mentioned. Last year, Jared Loughner, a schizophrenic with an assault rifle, murdered six people and wounded thirteen others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. There was outrage, but no change.

“We had a congresswoman shot in the head at a public forum by an individual who was able to kill and wound as many people as he did because he had a clip in his gun that had thirty-three rounds in it. As soon as that magazine was out, he was tackled to the ground and stopped. But afterwards, a bill called HR308 was introduced to congress and couldn’t get a single Republican endorsement,” said Heyne.

Most members of the Grand Old Party are sticking to the usual script, expressing deep sadness and calling for tougher regulation of violent video games, better monitoring of mental patients, armed teachers – anything but gun control. “How do you define assault weapon? It’s very difficult,” Senator Richard Shelby told Politico. “A ban won’t fix it. We’ve seen that movie before.”

With Obama’s support, Senator Dianne Feinstein will introduce a bill prohibiting the sale of certain semi-automatic guns and high-capacity magazines. The legislation is modelled on a ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004, even though there is scant evidence that it did much good. Last year, there were 12,664 gun murders in the United States, of which only 323 involved an assault rifle. As Obama himself noted, at a presidential debate: “in my hometown of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence, and they’re not using AK-47s, they’re using cheap handguns.”

Arms manufacturers are practiced at skirting new regulations, particularly ones as complex as the assault weapons ban, which counted the number of “military features” on guns, such as a bayonet lug, pistol grip, flash suppresser or collapsible stock. Intratec simply redesigned its popular Tec-9 submachine gun without a barrel shroud or threaded muzzle and called it the AB-10, short for After Ban.

“I own way over a hundred guns,” Feldman told me. “Several AR-15s, an Uzi carbine… I have all the guns that were banned. If the government’s gonna ban ‘em, I wanna own ‘em. If there was a ban on the future sale of high capacity magazines, that would have an impact, but it would take decades to be felt, because there’s in excess of a hundred million of these magazines owned by Americans today. No-one is saying that we should outlaw possession of them.”

This is the biggest hurdle to meaningful reform: there are already more than three hundred million guns in American homes and neither a buy-back programme nor a law banning the possession of specific weapons has anything like the political support it would need. As always, following a mass shooting, there has been a run on guns and ammo. “You can’t find.223 calibre ammunition on the shelves anywhere. Distributors have raised the prices, there are major shipping delays,” Feldman said. Sales were already strong before Newtown. On the day after Thanksgiving, two FBI call centres crashed under the weight of 154,873 requested background checks.

Alone among pro-gun groups, Feldman’s organisation supports closing the “gun show loophole” that allows roughly 40% of sales to go unmonitored. This was written into the Brady Act to make it easier for individuals to sell guns to each other, but has become the cornerstone of a massive online industry. One site, gunbroker.com, reported two billion dollars in sales this year. Anyone with a credit card can order a semi-automatic rifle and receive it the next day.

A survey conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74% of NRA members support background checks for anyone buying a gun, but the organisation’s leadership is unmoved. CEO Wayne LaPierre’s contribution to the post-Newtown debate turned out to be a proposal to post armed police officers at every school in the country.

Hammond, of Gun Owners of America – “the only no compromise gun lobby” – said all efforts at regulation have failed: “In ’86 we were told ‘if we take away full automatics and cop killer bullets, that’ll solve the problem’. Then if we ban assault weapons, then ban guns in schools, then ban guns for domestic misdemeanour committers. Every time, they say ‘this’ll solve our problem’ but it doesn’t do anything to prevent the next tragedy.”

In D.C. v Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment’s protection of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” extends to handguns at home. Although Justice Antonin Scalia made it clear that “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings” were not affected by the decision, most of the skirmishes since Heller have been initiated by firearms enthusiasts seeking to extend the reach of guns into every corner of American life.

On Thursday, Oklahoma became the fifteenth state to allow permit-holders to carry their guns openly, in a hip or shoulder holster. Several pending bills would allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus and others aim to replicate the “stand your ground” law that George Zimmerman cited in his defence, after shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. In many states, guns can legally be carried in cars, bars, nurseries, banks, hospitals, churches and national parks.

It has been a grim year for mass shootings, from Oikos University in California, where seven people were murdered, to the Batman screening in Colorado where twelve lives were ended, to the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin where a lone racist shot six worshippers dead, and finally to the unimaginable massacre in Connecticut. More than 32,000 people were killed by guns in the USA last year, around 20,000 of them suicides.

“The idea that we would say: ‘This is terrible. This is a tragedy. Never again,’ and we don’t have the sustained attention span to be able to get this done over the next several months doesn’t make sense,” said Obama. “I have more confidence in the American people than that.” In the aftermath of an atrocity too heart-rending to ignore, it seems inevitable that something will be done, but also that little will change.