The US Congress has had plenty of bad days in recent times – as a public approval rating straining to make it into double digits attests. But few of those days, to borrow the word used by a visibly furious Barack Obama, have been as “shameful” as Wednesday’s rejection by the Senate of a package of modest gun controls.
If ever there was a moment to bring some sanity to America’s absurdly permissive gun laws, this surely was it: a country appalled by December’s massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren, whose grieving parents came to Washington to lobby Congress in person; a re-elected President committed to reform; and a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks for gun-buyers, put forward by two senators with strong pro-gun records and which 90 per cent of Americans supported. To no avail. The Senate’s failure to pass even one of the measures was an arrogant dismissal of public opinion, a stinging rebuff for the President, and a depressing defeat for common sense.
Conversely, of course, it was a victory for the National Rifle Association, which deftly played upon the political vulnerabilities of Democratic lawmakers from conservative states and districts who are up for re-election, and succeeded in turning the debate from one about gun violence into one about Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. But before we blame everything on the machinations of the NRA, a simple fact should be remembered. Legislation passed by state after state in recent years shows that the US is becoming more pro-gun, not less.
As President Obama acknowledged, the proposed curbs would not have brought gun violence in the US down to European levels, let alone ended it completely: there are simply too many firearms around for that. But the expanded background checks would surely have saved some lives, without impinging on the right of law-abiding and mentally competent citizens. Those modest goals died on Wednesday – and with them, almost certainly, any hope of gun control in America for a generation.