Why is America unable to halt this epidemic of deadly gun violence?

It was the 18th incident of gun violence at a US school in 2018

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Thursday 15 February 2018 19:45 GMT
Barack Obama tears upduring gun control speech in 2016: We need to stand up to the gun lobby's lies

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Louise Thomas

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Barack Obama used to say it was the part of the job he hated the most – speaking in the aftermath of mass shootings and trying somehow to act as consoler-in-chief.

He had plenty of practice – Orlando, Kalamazoo, San Bernardino, Charleston and Aurora. He spoke after each, and wondered aloud why the US had succumbed to a pattern of mass shootings “that has no parallel anywhere else in the world”.

Perhaps the toughest speech he had to deliver was in December 2012, when 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Four years later, appearing in the Oval Office with some of the parents of those youngsters who lives were stolen, and appealing for support for gun control measures, he wiped tears from his eyes. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said.

School shootings are all too common in a country unable to pass gun legislation
School shootings are all too common in a country unable to pass gun legislation (Getty)

Six years later – a period in which at least 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings, and in which 590 individuals died in 346 mass shootings in 2017 alone – another US president is making another speech after yet another mass fatality incident takes its turn to dominate the headlines for a day or two.

Donald Trump called on Americans to “answer hate with love, answer cruelty with kindness” and said he would work to find ways to tackle the problem of mental health. He did not name the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, or mention the word guns. He certainly did not mention the AR-15 semi-assault profile – the so-called “civilian version” of the fully automatic M-16 model used by the military

Gun control campaigners say it is bewildering that after so many incidents of gun violence, politicians remain seemingly unwilling to act to control guns, especially when the American public supports regulation.

A poll by Quinnipiac University last November, found 94 per cent of Americans believe there should be background checks for all gun purchases, 79 per cent believe there should be a mandatory waiting period for purchases, 64 per cent support banning assault-style weapons and 64 per cent support banning the sale of magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Tellingly, 63 per cent said it was possible to make new gun laws without interfering with gun rights as afforded by the US Constitution.

“You cannot find an issue on which there is more agreement,” Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Independent.

Trump addresses nation following Florida shooting: 'Your suffering is our burden also'

“The trouble is, we have a stalemate in congress. Too many lawmakers get their funding from the NRA (National Rifle Association) and they block changes that would help stop this. Instead, they tweet about praying for the families.”

She added: “Everyone approves of greater gun regulation. The only people who don’t want this are the people who want to sell more guns.”

Ms Brown said the NRA, which was founded in 1871 as a recreational group designed to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”, today got most of its funding from gun manufacturers.

Its role as a lobbying group took off after 1977 when it formed its own Political Action Committee (PAC), to channel funds to legislators at state and local level. It even issues a rating to politicians, scoring them on how supportive they are of NRA policies.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who received $1.3m (£920,000) up to 2016 from the NRA, currently has an “A+”. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who received $171,977 in 2016 also has an “A+”. Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the Attorney General, has an A.

By contrast, the NRA has scored Democratic senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Florida’s Bill Nelson both with an “F”.

On Wednesday, Bess Kalb, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, drew attention to the NRA’s influence by responding to legislators tweeting message of condolence, by listing how much money they have received from the organisation.

Today, it is estimated that the NRA spends about $250m per year, far more than all the country’s gun control advocacy groups put together. In 2016, it endorsed Mr Trump’s presidential run and provided his campaign with up to $30m. Shortly after he took office, Mr Trump attended the NRA’s national convention in Atlanta.

“Only one candidate in the general election came to speak to you, and that candidate is now the president of the United States, standing before you,” he said. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you.”

Since then, Mr Trump has been a vocal supporter of gun rights. He supports a Republican bill pending before the Senate that the NRA considers its legislative priority and which would establish a nationwide right to carry a concealed weapon – even in those states and cities opposed to such laws.

“The right of self-defence doesn’t stop at the end of your driveway,” said one of his campaign’s policy documents. “That’s why I have a concealed carry permit and why tens of millions of Americans do too. That permit should be valid in all 50 states.”

Activists say in addition to that measure, Mr Trump and the Republican Party have backed moves to make it easier to buy silencers, blocked an Obama-era rule that would have made it harder for the mentally ill to buy weapons, made it easier for people labelled “fugitives” to get guns, loosened gun restrictions on federal land and ignored an undertaking to set up a select committee on gun violence.

Finally, New York magazine reported, Mr Trump has proposed cutting millions of dollars from the budgets of the organisations that carry out background checks.

There are an awful lot of guns in America: up to 265 million at the last count. Sales always go up after mass shootings as people fear the imposition of new regulations. After the Las Vegas mass shooting in October in which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people, the stock prices of gun companies increased.

At the same time, although congress vowed to ban the so-called bump stock, the device that renamed Paddock to shoot his weapon as if it were an automatic, no such national restriction has been passed, even though some states, such as Massachusetts, have passed bans.

The NRA initially said it supported making the purchase of such devices more difficult. But when a bipartisan group of politicians presented federal legislation to ban them, the NRA voiced opposition, saying it was an infringement on second amendment rights. The legislation, spearheaded by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, has since stalled.

The NRA and gun rights activists took heart from a 2008 Supreme Court decision – District of Columbia v. Heller – which for the which for the first time said the second amendment guaranteed an individual’s right to own guns. Yet, the ruling also allowed for gun control.

“For gun control, in other words, the problem is not constitutional law but political will,” the New Yorker’s legal expert Jeffrey Toobin wrote after the June 2016 Orlando night club shooting that left 49 people dead.

“Many states and localities have taken advantage of the gaps left by Heller to make serious efforts to limit gun violence. But because most guns are easily portable over state and jurisdictional lines, there is only so much that can be done without action by the federal government. And Congress, especially with the House of Representatives in Republican hands, seems implacably opposed to any sort of gun restrictions.”

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