Rupert Cornwell: Guns still control the ballot box in the age of Obama

Out of America: Why, with the Democrats in charge, are the firearm laws more lax, ownership increasing, and ammo sales rocketing?
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These are baffling times on the front lines of America's great culture wars. Half a dozen states have now approved gay marriage, the very mention of which is anathema to social conservatives. In contrast, another great cause of conservatives – to make abortion illegal – seems to be making headway. In May, Gallup found that more Americans considered themselves pro-life than pro-choice, the first time this has happened since the polling organisation began asking the question in 1995. But on the third major battlefield, there is no doubt. More than ever, guns are in.

Why that is so is a matter of debate. Some blame today's hard economic times. Recession and unemployment breed more violent crime, it is said, and people are taking their own precautions. Others suggest the election of Barack Obama prompted a surge in gun purchases, due to fears that a new president, long demonised by the right as an urban anti-gun liberal, would seek to ban entire categories of weapons, or at least curb imports and impose higher taxes on both guns and ammunition. Such worries were a curious misreading of a candidate who, during the campaign, promised to take a common-sense, non-confrontational approach to the issue. But the figures speak for themselves.

Since Obama was elected in November, gun sales have risen sharply. In April, according to the FBI, almost 1,226,000 people underwent the required background tests for gun owners, a 30 per cent jump in a single year. There are also severe ammunition shortages, reportedly due to stockpiling by gun enthusiasts. Some kinds of bullets, .38 and .357 in particular, are said to be virtually unobtainable in stores. For manufacturers though, it's a case of recession, what recession? "We are breaking our own production records in an attempt to keep up with customer demand," Hornady Manufacturing, a leading US ammunition maker, says on its website, but warns that despite its efforts, the company can no longer meet individual orders.

Some things, of course, never change. As usual, gun crimes are in the headlines, this time after the fatal shooting last week by the 88-year-old white supremacist James von Brunn of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But after initial outrage, the reaction has, as always, been one of weary acceptance. Even the slaughter of 32 people by a deranged student at Virginia Tech University a couple of years ago – the worst such massacre in US history – failed to generate real pressure for stricter gun laws.

It's fair to assume that America has roughly the same proportion of homicidal maniacs in its population as other countries. The reason mass shootings are so common here is simply that guns are so easily available. Such incidents are tragic, everybody agrees, but they are the price to be paid for the basic right to bear arms, enshrined in the second amendment of the constitution and consistently upheld by the Supreme Court. Or as the slogan of the National Rifle Association, the formidable gun lobby group, has it: "Guns don't kill people, people do."

If anything, that view is gaining ground. The argument over guns has always basically pitted the danger they pose to public safety against their projection of America's beloved self-image of freedom, independence and individual power. Right now the latter is winning. America's gun laws are getting laxer, and that is how Congress – even this Democrat-controlled Congress – and the public want it. Indeed, the advance of pro-gun sentiment on Capitol Hill is due precisely to the advances made by Democrats in their two banner election years of 2006 and 2008. Overwhelmingly, the inroads came in conservative southern or western states that are normally Republican, where a Democrat more or less has to be pro-gun to win election.

The impact of this changed reality has been immediate. For instance, if you're planning a visit to Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon this summer, bear in mind that, thanks to an amendment to a credit card reform bill in May, you may now carry a loaded and concealed weapon in a US national park. But for the long-disenfranchised and overwhelmingly Democratic citizens of the District of Columbia the consequences have been much further-reaching. The age of Obama, featuring a thoroughly modern African-American president backed by solid Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, was supposed to be when a great historical injustice would finally be corrected. Majority-black DC would finally gain a seat in the House of Representatives (balanced by an extra seat for rock-ribbed Republican Utah).

It hasn't worked out like that. The measure, it should be said, wasn't perfect, and might have fallen foul of the Supreme Court. But last week it was withdrawn – not because of any constitutional shortcomings, but because of an amendment tacked on by Republicans that would have thrown out the District's restrictive gun laws. Maybe some Democratic Congressmen feared offending the mighty NRA. Maybe they genuinely believed the DC ban on handguns was a violation of individual rights. But this distinction ultimately was immaterial. There simply weren't enough Democratic votes to defeat the amendment. The gun lobby had won again.

And do not expect President Obama to do much about it. He won the presidency by capturing previously Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana where gun ownership is widespread, and will do nothing to alienate them before he seeks re-election in 2012. Nor has he any intention of making conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill hostages of the culture wars. He needs every one of their votes to push through his priorities of economic, health care and energy reform. For that reason Obama has said nothing about the demise of the DC bill, and has made no attempt to resurrect a 1994 bill banning assault weapons, despite massive support from police forces across the country. This president is nothing if not a realist. He knows that the votes are simply not there to reinstate a measure that expired in 2004 – and that now, of all times, you don't mess with America and its enduring love affair with guns.