Editorial: Obama's chance to act on guns

The President has shown that he can make progress through compromise

Sunday 16 December 2012 01:00

Once again, the rest of the world regards America with horror, sympathy and incomprehension. How can a rich, democratic nation have so misinterpreted one of its founding principles, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...", to mean that repeat-fire guns should be available to anyone of disordered mind who feels that the world is against him?

As appalled as we are by the darkness, we are moved by the shining, selfless heroism shown by several of the adults who were charged with the care of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those are the better angels of the American nature to whom the nation's leaders should now look.

We know that the American Dream has a dark side, but we should not pretend that we are so very different. We had Hungerford, Dunblane and Cumbria in this country in 1987, 1996 and 2010. After Hungerford, we banned semi-automatic weapons; after Dunblane, handguns; and yet we still could not stop Derrick Bird, the taxi driver who killed 12 around Whitehaven in Cumbria, who used a legal shotgun and rifle.

Yet there is a correlation between the availability of guns and the frequency of multiple killings. In America, such killings happen more often because all kinds of guns are so readily available. This does not mean that the US psyche is different from ours; simply that Americans have a history of widespread gun ownership. As Rupert Cornwell points out today, it makes a sort of sense to suppose that, if everyone else has a gun, you will be safer if you have one too.

So it may be that the American political system is less broken than it looks to us outsiders. Gun control measures have been enacted in recent decades. The assault weapons ban was passed by two votes in Congress in 1994, with the support of President Reagan. Unfortunately, the act, which banned semi-automatic firearms, expired 10 years later. The time limit was a success for the National Rifle Association, a remarkable institution that transformed itself in the 1970s from a sports club into a ruthless single-issue political lobby. But it should be remembered that public opinion in the US is opposed to gun control in any case.

In other ways, too, the US seems to be going backwards. Only on Tuesday a federal appeals court struck down a ban on carrying concealed guns in Illinois, Barack Obama's home state. We have to understand the limits of the possible imposed by America's history. President Obama, even if he were the great liberal reformer of the European imagination, is never going to repeal the second amendment to the constitution.

Nor can he reverse decisions of the Supreme Court, which just two years ago found that that amendment guarantees the right of a US citizen to keep a gun. Thus, when the President speaks, as he did in his emotional address on Friday, of "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies", it will have to be action to tighten the rules and to restrict the categories of weapons that may be held.

This is an almost impossible political project, especially when the US is so polarised. And yet President Obama has shown with healthcare reform that he can make progress through compromise towards a goal once regarded as impossible. If he can achieve any restriction on the availability of guns in his second term, he would rightly stake a claim to modest greatness.

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