Newtown: What we learnt from Obama’s speech and what we can expect from US gun laws in future

The vigil was no time to elaborate on policy; that job comes now

Share
Fact File
  • $17 million Amount the NRA spent on federal elections this year
Related Topics

It was a familiar scenario. Barack Obama’s speech to nine hundred mourners in Newtown, Connecticut counted as the fourth time the US president has been forced to address the local victims of a mass shooting. Things were a little different this time, though: the president’s hair was a little greyer, his face more gaunt, and his body slightly shrunken from a recently fought campaign battle. Political circumstances had also changed. Obama was no longer fighting for his second term in power, as he was when he visited Aurora, Colorado in the wake of the Dark Knight Rises theatre shooting, and nor was he being hosted by a strong Republican state, as he was during his visits to the victims of shootings at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and Tuscon, Arizona in 2011.

The issue, though, was very much the same: guns, policy, reform, control. Words not used but alluded to in Obama’s speech in Newtown. “We can't tolerate this any more,” said the president. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."

Like clockwork, Obama’s sensitivity was met with righteous indignation from both sides of the political spectrum. Left-wingers complained the speech had balked at the details: the novelist Linda Grant tweeted “Is it just me who found Obama’s speech last night wooly and evasive?” while a Republican representative from Texas, Louis Gohmert, said the tragedy could have been prevented had teachers at the school been properly armed.

Not the place

Both opinions overlooked a respect for grief that Obama, conversely, maintained assiduously. This was a privately held vigil: not the time to be waving flags, pushing congress, or waging war with the National Rifle Association.

But as the dust settles on Newtown and Obama returns to Washington for talks with Joe Biden, who the Washington Post say has been put in charge of the new initiative to reduce gun violence, the Democrats find themselves at a decisive fulcrum. Though White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday said that the president supported reinstating a ban on assault weapons that had expired under George W Bush in 2004, he also acknowledged the complexity of the problem, stating "No single piece of legislation, no single action will fully address the problem."

A wide scale approach to the issue was similarly anticipated by Obama’s address at the vigil in Connecticut, in which he promised 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.” What this points to is a probable split in the initiative: Americans can expect legislative efforts to tighten gun laws, but social reform is also being posited – the suggestion that greater emphasis be put on the country’s lacking mental health care system.

Mental Health

Neither option is a quick fix. At present, gun regulations are state defined and enacting a federal law on such a contentious issue is infamously difficult: the Democrats hold only a slim majority in the Senate and achieving the required sixty votes to pass legislation will be tricky. On top of this the NRA, the most powerful gun-lobbying group in the world, has over four million members and this year spent $17 million on federal elections. Although its silence following the Sandy Hook massacre and the intensity of protest that it is today receiving in Washington are encouraging factors, its clout should not be underestimated.

Solving the mental health issue is an equally daunting task. One of Ronald Reagan’s lasting legacies of the 1980s was the shift in focus from social policy to fiscal policy in the US. This led to the closing of mental health hospitals first in California and then grew to the majority of the United States, alongside cuts to federally-funded community mental health programmes - the kind of programmes which may have directly benefited people like Adam Lanza and James Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado gunman who went to trial earlier this year).

Pragmatically, though, the redefinition of the mental health care system is unlikely. Given the US’s continuing deficit problems and the White House’s flailing budget a reinvestment in public services seems a near impossible response to the gun control problem.

The example from Australia

With this in mind, Obama and the Democrats' best bet may be to look to Australia and the massively successful gun reforms of 1996, following Martin Bryant’s massacre of thirty six people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The circumstances of the two shootings are even eerily similar: the violence was widespread, sustained and also directed at minors, and Bryant was mentally ill and even came from a place called Newtown. Obama and Biden should be inspired by the situation, though, in considering that change was then enacted from the top down: John Howard, prime minister at the time, spearheaded the campaign for a national firearms agreement which involved a year long amnesty and buy-back of weapons, most of which were semi-automatic.

Similarly, too, Howard was supported by a ground swell of media and public opinion comparable to that going on in the US now. Those reforms, enacted over16 years ago in direct response to a landmark tragedy, have since proved the most effective in the recent history of the gun. If Obama and Biden can muster a strong leadership effort from the top while harnessing the power of growing public opinion, they may begin to dream about a similar victory.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?