Newtown massacre: Washington shows first ripples of what could become an extensive push for curbs on owning and buying guns

 

Only hours after President Barack Obama chided his nation at an inter-faith memorial service in Newtown, Connecticut, for not doing enough to protect its children from violence, a small but swelling chorus broke out in Washington offering him support for new curbs on gun ownership.

It was led, notably, by Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and a lifelong member of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), who acknowledged what many others in the country are surely feeling: that the slaughter of 20 children and six adults in Newtown last Friday means enough is enough.

Others followed, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who is also close to the NRA. Even Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, for years a staunch supporter of gun rights, opened the door to changes in the law.

A call for action was the impassioned message from Mr Obama at the podium at Newtown High School, late on Sunday. He did not say the words "gun control" but there was no mistaking his intention to press for new gun-control legislation. What he surely does not mean, however, is repealing the Second Amendment that enshrines the right of Americans to bear arms. While theoretically possible, it would require two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, along with ratification by three in four state assemblies. Twenty-seven of those assemblies are Republican-controlled.

Even the more-limited goal of new congressional action, which could include the reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons passed by Bill Clinton, but which expired in 2004, will face obstacles, not least because Mr Obama's party does not control the lower house. But his speech in Newtown was as potent as any he has delivered and by linking gun control with the welfare of America's children he surely made it harder for opponents to resist him.

"I've been a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights," Senator Warner remarked last night. "I've got an A rating from the NRA. But the status quo isn't acceptable. I've got three daughters." Senator Reid signalled his shifting stance from the Senate floor. "In the coming days and weeks, we'll engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws in a culture that allows this violence to continue to grow," he declared. "We have no greater responsibility than keeping our most vulnerable and most precious resource – our children – safe." He added: "Every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to do just that."

Mr Obama, who told the Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy that Friday, when news of the slaughter broke, had been the hardest day of his presidency, said on Sunday: "We can't tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change." Speaking without an autocue, his words punctuated by deep sobs from his 900-strong audience, he continued: "In the coming weeks I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators – in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine." He ended his speech by reciting the names of the 20 children shot dead by Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook.

Before arriving at the service, Mr Obama visited the family of another of Lanza's victims, Sandy Hook's principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and was pictured holding her granddaughter. He also met members of the emergency services. Kevin Paturzo, 25, told reporters: "Just him coming to this town is much appreciated."

Adam Winkler, a UCLA School of Law professor and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, says the horror of Friday may be a turning point in the US gun debate. He added: "Twenty children mercilessly slaughtered in a schoolhouse is too much for people to bear."

While gun laws are back in the spotlight, any changes are sure to face a huge amount of opposition

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