Jo Cox's tragic death grants US leaders new arms in the fight for gun control

General Stanley McChrystal, former head of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: 'Our communities should not feel like war zones. Our leaders must do more to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to handle them responsibly'

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 21 June 2016 18:11 BST
Tributes to Jo Cox, the Labour MP who died after she was shot and stabbed in her constituency last week
Tributes to Jo Cox, the Labour MP who died after she was shot and stabbed in her constituency last week (Getty)

In 2014, 33,599 people died from gunshot wounds in the US. From 2001 to 2010, 119,246 Americans were murdered with guns; that is 18 times all American combat deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These shocking figures were pointed out by General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he stressed “some of our politicians and the people who back them seem to promote a culture of gun ownership that does not conform to what I learned in the military.”

These politicians in the US Senate have just rejected, yet again, plans to tighten gun control. Among the measures they blocked were expanding background checks to cover private sales: banning suspects on terrorism watch lists from buying guns: alerting the FBI to terrorism suspects who have bought a gun, (without actually stopping the sale) and allowing the US attorney general to delay a gun purchase to a suspected terrorist (while having to prove the terrorist link to a judge during three days). The last proposal was actually backed by the National Rifle Association which has historically opposed almost all forms of gun control, but still failed to go through.

Parliament remembers Jo Cox

The vote took place in the wake of Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to Isis, shooting 49 people dead in Orlando, the worst mass killing in the recent history of America, a country which has experienced many such massacres. In Britain after the MP Jo Cox was shot dead, we learned that the man accused of killing her, Thomas Mair, allegedly bought a booklet on how to make a homemade pistol from the US, the supplier was a neo-Nazi organisation.

The phrase “it was just like a war zone” is often used by people who have never experienced war. Gen McChrystal, as those of us who covered the Iraq and Afghan wars know, is a very tough solider who has himself been in pretty fierce combat. One should take note when he talks about lack of gun control creating “a battlefield on our soil” and how many in the military “are alarmed at the carnage” at home.

The General warns “in my life as a soldier and citizen, I have seen time and time again that inaction has dire consequences. In this case, one consequence of our leaders’ inaction is that felons, domestic abusers and suspected terrorists have easy access to firearms. We are alarmed by loopholes that let felons and domestic abusers get hold of guns without a background check. We are alarmed that a known or suspected terrorist can go to a federally licensed firearms dealer where background checks are conducted, pass that background check, legally purchase a firearm and walk out the door.”

A group of former members of US armed forces have now formed an organisation, the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, to campaign for firearms safety. It includes, among others, General David Petraeus, another former US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Michael Hayden, formerly of the US Air Force and General Wesley Clark, the former chief of Nato forces. Gen Petraeus said that the aim was very simple: “to make it more difficult for individuals to get what they have used to kill so many fellow Americans.”

Captain Mark Kelly, formerly of the US Navy and an astronaut, was one of the group’s organisers. His wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and severely injured in 2011 when, as a congresswoman, she was meeting constituents outside a supermarket. Six others, including a nine-year-old girl, were killed in the attack.

After Jo Cox’s death, Giffords wrote “like me she was just 41 when she was shot. Like me, she was doing the essential business of government, meeting people she represented. I lived, she died. My heart broke when I heard, I will think of her for the rest of my life.”

After the Senate vote Giffords said: “Once again, some senators ignored the will of the American people and stood with the gun lobby. Faced with the opportunity to close the loopholes in our gun laws, they voted to protect the irresponsible status quo.”

Ms Giffords’ stance as congresswoman on issues such as gun control and immigration had brought her into conflict with right-wing intolerance. Bile is now being directed at the military officers on the internet. “They are too chicken-livered to defend the constitution, they should be tarred and feathered”, said one. A blog bemoaned that the commanders’ desire for gun control was yet another example of what has gone wrong with America’s armed forces: “The military used to be the last bastion of conservative values. Loyalty, patriotism, toughness and discipline were encouraged and homosexuality was banned. No more. Now the Pentagon celebrates Gay Pride Day.”

The Veterans Coalition for Common Sense says it is undeterred. Gen McChrystal was adamant: “Our communities should not feel like war zones. Our leaders can start by doing more to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to handle them responsibly. That must be our mission.”

But, judging by the sheer power of the gun lobby and the unwillingness of supine politicians in the Capitol to take it on, Gen McChrystal and his colleagues will need all the strategic skills they have acquired on hostile terrains to make sure their mission does not end in failure.

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