Has the time finally arrived, after the unspeakable shooting rampage in December 2012 that killed 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, when the United States will finally take action to prevent thousands of its citizens from being gunned down every year? Two years ago Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a political event in a mall parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. She survived but six people were killed. Giffords has had to retire from politics but has made a difficult and courageous recovery. “Since that terrible day,” Giffords writes on her website, “America has seen 11 more mass shootings – but no response from Congress to prevent gun violence.”
Recently, Giffords met with town and school officials in Newtown before visiting with victims’ families from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Giffords has chosen to become involved in a campaign for the stricter regulation of guns in the U.S. and has just launched an organization called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
There are 33,000 guns deaths a year in the U.S. and 12,000 of those are murders. Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, quoting American sources, writes that “more Americans die from gun-related homicides and suicides in the space of half a year than have died in the past quarter century of terrorist attacks, as well as the Afghan and Iraq wars combined.”
We can’t tolerate this …
President Obama, when he spoke at a memorial in Newtown, said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change.” Obama may finally have found his courage after doing little or nothing on the issue in his first term. This time may be different. Obama has appointed Vice-President Joe Biden with leading a task force to recommend ways in which the gun death carnage might be reduced.
The most likely first steps would be to resume a ban that had been allowed to lapse on deadly assault rifles such as the Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic weapon that was used to kill in Newtown. The gun was apparently legally registered by the killer’s mother — he shot her too. One U.S. politician asked after the Newtown shootings why and how weapons used to kill on the battlefield have become easily available as consumer items for sale in the U.S.
Other possible responses at the political level could include more thorough background checks on those buying firearms and a national gun ownership registry that tracks the sale of weapons. That should be familiar to Canadians. We had just such a firearms registry. The Conservatives opposed while in opposition and after they won a governing majority they not only ended it but destroyed all of the records.
The scary NRA
Even progressive politicians in the U.S. fear the political influence of the gun lobby, particularly that of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is particularly popular among the Republicans. The NRA presents itself as an organization representing law-abiding mom and pop gun owners but a non-profit group called the Violence Policy Center (VPC) based in Washington, DC says that the NRA receives millions of dollars in support from companies involved in the manufacture or sale of firearms or shooting-related products.
The NRA went silent after the murders in Newtown, as it has in the aftermath of other mass shootings. No interviews, no Facebook or Twitter comments, no news conferences. When NRA executive vice-president Wayne Lapierre finally emerged, 11 days after the shooting, he was defiant. The fault, he said in a news conference where he would not take questions, lay with the media, with violent video games and with lax security – but not with the easy availability of guns. Lapierre then proposed as a solution that armed guards be posted in all of American’s 100,000 public schools. One American politician described this suggestion as “beyond belief.”
The NRA, many politicians and some ordinary citizens (a good number in Canada too) claim that more guns in the hands of more people would create a safer society. That is a patent fallacy.
The U.S. has far more guns per capita than countries that are economically and politically similar to it, and it has gun-related death rates that are much higher on average. The New York Times, citing a Harvard University study, says, “the American murder rate is roughly 15 times that of other wealthy countries, which have much tougher laws controlling private ownership of guns.”
Studies by the non-profit VPC have found repeatedly that American states with higher gun ownership rates and weak gun laws have the highest rates of gun death. A VPC official says, “The equation is simple. More guns lead to more gun death, but limiting exposure to firearms saves lives.”
Nation in lockdown
The NRA’s demand for armed guards in every public school has been picked up by a number of Republican legislators. The Globe and Mail newspaper responded to the NRA proposals with an editorial titled: An armed guard for every child. “He (Lapierre) would turn America into an armed camp,” writes The Globe. “Why stop at armed police in front of schools? What about day care centres? Summer camps and swimming pools? What about playgrounds? Universities? Hospitals? Churches? … Do Americans really want to live in the kind of country the NRA envisions? … It would be a nation in lockdown.”
Support for tougher laws
It remains to be seen whether the massacre of school children in Connecticut will be a tipping point in this debate. Traditionally a slim majority of Americans has favoured stronger gun laws than those in existence. That support has dropped in recent years but the Toronto Star reports that polls taken since the Newtown massacre show that 54% of Americans (a five-year high) now want tougher laws.
Maybe, just maybe, it will be different this time. President Obama says he expects determined opposition to any proposals to make the deadly guns less readily available. A newspaper story says that he hopes to counter this opposition by “creating a broad coalition” that includes religious leaders, among others. Without that public groundswell, Obama says, political change will not occur.
One awaits the response from those religious leaders. Reducing the death toll from gun violence is a pro-life issue on which they should all be able to agree.