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Don’t expect a paradigm shift in American gun politics

The world gasps dumbstruck in the wake of the Connecticut shootings, but don’t expect it to be a catalyst for profound reform of American gun laws.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So reads the second amendment to the United States constitution, and that’s where all the trouble starts. It’s been said ad nauseam that the social and political realities of 1791 made this, if not a sensible piece of lawmaking, then at least a comprehensible one. In 2012 it is socially and politically superfluous, and this is demonstrated with heart-breaking regularity.

In the US around 80 Americans are killed by guns every day; about twice that number are injured by them. Once or twice a year somebody exercising “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” slips their moorings so comprehensively that their actions make international news. Then the world gasps dumbstruck as a Connecticut, or a Colorado Theatre, or a Virginia Tech, or a Columbine inscribes itself indelibly onto America’s blood-stained history.

There are more. Many more.

Do not, however, expect the tragedy that unfolded at Connecticut to be a catalyst for profound reform of American gun laws. Such reform would be unprecedented and faces a number of virtually insurmountable obstacles.

The most obvious of these is the form legislation inevitably takes before Democrats and Republicans could see it enacted. Take the Clinton gun ban, for instance, or to give it its complete name, the “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994. The names sound fierce; you’d imagine all the really nasty weapons were snatched and melted down on the spot.

Not so. For starters, the bill had a 10-year “sunset clause” (it’s no longer binding, in other words, and hasn’t been for eight years), it only limited certain features of certain weapons (folding or telescoping stocks, pistol grips, high-capacity magazines, threaded muzzles and so forth) and, glory of glories, if you already owned a weapon with such features, it was “grandfathered”. That is, noted, stamped and suddenly worth about four times what you paid for it.

It’s also worth noting fully-automatic weapons are not illegal in the US. So long as the receiver was manufactured prior to 1986 and you have the will to do some paperwork and a bundle of cash, owning a machine gun is perfectly kosher.

This is the environment any politician wishing to enact serious gun reform must work in. An environment in which there are 90 guns for every hundred people, and in which many gun owners see legislative reform of gun ownership as a sinister first step to disarm good red-blooded citizens.

There also exists in America a large number of people who believe their government is a potential enemy. The average militia nutcase stockpiling ammunition and weapons doesn’t just fear foreign but rather domestic enemies. How would one expect such a person to react to the local sheriff asking them to hand over their arsenal?

In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, Australian authorities had a relatively simple task: public opinion was galvanized by an event without precedent in Australian memory, relatively few members of an overwhelmingly metropolitan population owned guns anyway, and a buy-back scheme was therefore never going to break the bank. There was no legislative or constitutional provision protecting a citizen’s right to pack heat.

Not so in the US.

Forget the politics for a second. Dismiss the obscene power wielded by well-organised lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association, don’t worry about the constitution and ignore the odd nutter who thinks “from my cold dead hands” is a sexy war cry. Just how exactly is anybody going to be able to collect and destroy about 100 million especially dangerous weapons and (here’s the kicker) compensate the owners for them?

Where’s that kind of money coming from with the US in the financial state it’s currently in?

So don’t expect ”meaningful action”. Don’t expect a sudden paradigm shift in American gun politics. Expect more of the same.

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  • 1
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted December 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    There won’t be gun reform law, but it will (and has already starting becoming) almost universal that every building, every schoolyard, every public park, everywhere where it is feasible to do so will require security guards and metal detectors. And maybe eventually people will realise how absurd it is to prefer that over sensible regulation and oversight of civilian ownership of powerful and dangerous weapons.

  • 2
    rhwombat
    Posted December 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Some comment from the US has suggested that the solution is to punitively tax (and/or track) ammunition in the same way as we have approached cigarettes with a big public health stick. The test of whether this might be effective would be the level of screaming indignation promulgated by the monstrous arms manufacturers of the US and their attack dogs in the NRA. It might go some way to reemploy all those spin merchants moving on from the failing “no anthropogenic climate change” industry.

  • 3
    beachcomber
    Posted December 16, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Maybe some amendments to their Constitution enshrining the Right to send your kids to school, safe in the expectation that they will be alive when you go to collect them, would help. Or the Right to go to the Movies without being assassinated. More radically , an Obligation to lock your weapons up. It is little wonder the USA is a declining power when they let a law written over 220 years ago undermine everyone’s safety.

  • 4
    Stephen
    Posted December 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Sadly true.

    If Obama doesn’t try, neither will anybody else, not for another generation at least.

    If he does, somebody will try to kill him.

  • 5
    joanjett
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Oh Obama won’t do anything except cry crocodile tears. The man assassinates his own citizens and those of other countries via drone attack all the time! Collateral damage that’s all.

  • 6
    Arty
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing we can do about the freedom to carry arms, and use them, in the USA.

    Be very, very worried about every effort to bring similar lax guns laws in Australia.

    Which Australian political party supports easing our firearm laws?

  • 7
    Stiofan
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    You just can’t help yourselves, can you? John Howard’s greatest policy achievement is airily dismissed as “a relatively simple task”. Howard didn’t hide in his Canberra bunker. He went out into the bush, where the gun-nutters are, and argued his case in public meetings. I never voted for him, but his willingness to get out and do the right thing on this occasion stands in stark contrast to the current incumbent, whose idea of public debate is screeching ad hominem attacks and unfunny Youtube videos.

  • 8
    Phil L
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Interesting how the Port Arthur gun tragedy here in Australia was all the public and the politicians needed to change the laws in a democratic and peaceful way.
    What is it about the American psych that prevents rational debate and action on this matter? It beats the hell out of me.
    Like many others I’m thanking my good luck that my two children (6 & 8) are here in Australia…

  • 9
    مكينMrGibberish
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    ‘He went out into the bush, where the gun-nutters are’

    your comment might seem logical for someone who does not know the US, but for someone is is familiar with it you are off the planet man.

    you don’t have to go into the bush to find the ‘gun-nutters’, in America they are all around you especially in the red states, and the right to bear arms is in the constitution. it is a totally different culture and a different place to Oz.

    my cousin was in the US marines, but he did not feel safe raising his young family in Texas so he moved to California. this is not to say that it is very bad in the US and you have to be fearful all the time when you live there.

    the NRA is more powerful than Grover Norquist and Wall Street, more than the Zionist lobby, they have more influence on congress and the senate than the POTUS could ever have. it’s no easy task, and it’s not helpful to compare date palm to chili.

  • 10
    Hamis Hill
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Both the US and Australia share the common history of the War of the Three Kingdoms where a Monarch, using foreign funds, raised a standing army against the English parliament and people, and lost his head as a consequence.
    This tyranny was raised against the American colonies a bit over a century later.
    Those English colonists were well aware of the War of the Three Kingdoms,it was, after all their recent history, just as it is the long forgotten history of all Australians, regardless of their ethnicity.
    So why all this pretence that Australians somehow cannot understand the role of private weapons in the US?
    Why all this moral superiority, when the present crew of marsupial ignoramuses have done nothing at all to claim any superiority at all?
    Long forgotten history indeed.
    Are you all quite sure that this complacent ignorance is not inviting any modern tyrants?
    The behaviour of the politico-religious dementoids who have subverted the opposition by just one vote and who have been trashing the conventions of parliament?
    She’ll be right?

  • 11
    Dan Dair
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Modern American culture includes guns as the norm in huge areas of the US.
    This is a long way from saying that everyone has a gun, though.

    That said, the general response to events like this weekends in Maryland is either;
    There’s always a few bad apples, but I’d never do anything like that (which you’d imagine is the kind of thing the Maryland shooter was saying to himself a year or so ago)
    or
    Can you imagine how bad it would have been if *the police/the public (*delete as appropriate) weren’t routinely armed.?

    The pro-gun lobby tell their supporters how necessary guns are, because criminals already have them.
    They also have a very well-worn circular argument for not banning guns in any shape or form, which concerns the amount of guns which are already in circulation rendering any gun-control meaningless.
    Also, when pressed, they’ll quote you numbers about the economics of guns and the manufacturing & retail jobs they support.

    The US really does start from somewhere else on this subject.

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