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Is America’s gun debate different this time?

As US gun-control efforts continue, there are signs of a shift in opinion and resolve

Lesley Russell 15 March 2018 2099 words

Fourteen-year-old student Judith Aragon releases a balloon at Ortiz Middle School, New Mexico, at a 14 March commemoration for victims of the Parkland school shooting. Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP

When a nineteen-year-old former student shot and killed fourteen students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last month, the United States was shaken. Once again, the affected community rallied in support of the victims and their families. Once again, a Never Again movement garnered support. Once again, leaders and politicians offered their thoughts and prayers.

These familiar rituals have been repeated so often over the years. Back in 2012, when a young gunman killed twenty young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, there were hopes that, at last, the grief shared by so many, from president Barack Obama down, would result in government action. Since then, some 7000 children have been killed by guns, and the first nine weeks of 2018 have seen at least fourteen school shootings in America.

President Trump and opponents of gun control continue their endless efforts to blame mental illness, video games, Obama-era discipline policies and even gun-free schools for the carnage, focusing on anything but the real cause: the ready availability of assault-style weapons and ammunition. Yet the evidence shows that most mass shooters don’t have diagnosed mental health problems (although they often have a history of violence, especially domestic violence, and clashes with the law) and no link has been established between playing violent video games and mass shooting.

One fact is clear, though: countries and US states that limit overall gun ownership have fewer gun deaths. The United States has just 4.4 per cent of the world’s population, but Americans own an estimated 42 per cent of the world’s guns.

How did the potent links between gun culture and constitutional rights and freedoms arise? The Second Amendment is a legacy of the American Revolution and a desire to protect the newly independent nation from the tyrannical rule of the old world. “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State,” it reads, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” As Tony Blackshield has described, it was not until 2008 that the US Supreme Court recognised the “right to bear arms” as a personal, individual right, permitting law-abiding citizens to possess handguns in their home for their personal protection. Two years later, it held that both state and federal governments must observe this newly discovered right.

The National Rifle Association, or NRA, formed in 1871 by civil war veterans, has a primary focus on protecting the business interests of gun manufacturers. Its aggressive pro–gun rights stance originated with the 1963 assassination of president John F. Kennedy and intensified after the assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan was an NRA member, and steadfastly maintained his opposition to handgun control even after he was shot. After leaving office, though, he endorsed the Brady Law (named for his press secretary, who was wounded and seriously disabled during the attempt on Reagan’s life) in an article published in the New York Times. Later, in a joint letter to Congress with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, published in 1994, he supported an assault weapons ban. Once enacted, the ban helped reduce the frequency and lethality of mass shootings.

As part of a compromise agreement to pass that legislation, the ban was limited to ten years. By the time it expired, the NRA’s political donations had bought the votes that prevented two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from implementing their promises to re-enact the ban. Since then, growing political conservatism and distrust of government have helped fuel the NRA mantra that “the only response to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and a significant voter faction sees public action for the public good as part of a socialist conspiracy to rob citizens of their rights and freedoms.

So the teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting find themselves in a David-and-Goliath battle to force changes to gun laws. Yet something seems to be different this time, and the students increasingly appear to be the most formidable foes the NRA has had to deal with.

The Parkland teenagers are determined that their horrible experience will deliver change. As Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler recently put it, “These students have channelled a personal hell into one of the most potent online forces since @realDonaldTrump.” They are rising to the occasion because they must, because it’s the only way they can make sense of their trauma, and because they have the necessary social media and communication skills. The Columbine High School shooting took place before the advent of social media, and the Sandy Hook survivors were too young. This could be the opportunity for change that has so far been so elusive, especially as the NRA’s money can’t buy these young activists’ votes or their silence.

So far, the students’ efforts to keep gun violence on the national agenda have been extremely successful, even though the social media they are using so brilliantly has come back to bite them and their supporters in the nastiest possible ways. The schoolkids have been called “crisis actors” and told they aren’t grieving properly and aren’t old enough to influence public policy. They’ve had death threats and been made pawns in the conspiracy theories that were bursting into social media even as the details of the Parkland shooting were still being made public. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, are struggling to squelch posts that harass families from previous shootings.

The NRA has contributed its own nastiness. NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch attacked the news media, saying, “Many in legacy media love mass shootings… Crying white mothers are ratings gold.” Her interventions aren’t necessarily going the NRA’s way, though: a threatening video she recorded has been cleverly parodied by a student, using Loesch’s tone and cadence.

What is crucial here is that opinion, even among gun owners, is changing. A Quinnipiac poll released on 20 February showed support for universal gun background checks at an all-time high of 97 per cent. A week later, a Politico poll found that 88 per cent of voters supported universal background checks, 70 per cent supported a ban on high-capacity magazines, and 68 per cent wanted to ban assault-style weapons. Eighty-two per cent think the minimum age for purchasing an assault-style weapon should be lifted to twenty-one, and 81 per cent want purchasers of all firearms to be that age.

While politicians have dithered, nervous about upsetting the NRA and gun owners, American corporations quickly saw where public sentiment was heading. Several large businesses have said they will raise the age limit for the purchase of weapons and ammunition; others, such as airlines, car rentals and banks, have cut their ties with the NRA.

No one has vacillated more on gun control — and thus exposed the extent of his fealty to the NRA, which gave more than US$30 million to his presidential campaign — than Donald Trump. His initial rash of crazy ideas at least offered hope that change was possible. During a “listening session” with teachers, students and parents on 22 February, he advocated arming certain teachers and school staffers, on the basis that gun-free schools are “like an invitation for these very sick people” to commit murder. “If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said.

Then, at a meeting with Republican and Democrat law-makers on 28 February, he stunned both parties and scared the NRA with his positions, arguing for raising the age for gun purchase to twenty-one and for taking guns away from those who pose a risk to society. “We can’t wait and play games and nothing gets done,” he said as he opened the session. “We want to stop the problems.” In front of television cameras, Trump accused the law-makers of being “petrified” of the NRA.

After what he called a “great” private meeting with NRA leaders, though, he had an apparent change of heart. The White House’s long-promised response to the Parkland shootings, released on 11 March, was much more in line with NRA thinking. It focused largely on mental health and school safety, together with a formal endorsement of legislation to tighten the federal background checks system. The administration now backs two pieces of legislation: a bipartisan bill by senators John Cornyn and Chris Murphy designed to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and the STOP School Violence Act, sponsored by senator Orrin Hatch, which would authorise state-based grants for violence prevention training for teachers and students.

Despite the students’ push to toughen restrictions on gun purchases and Trump’s earlier call to raise the minimum purchaser age, the White House plan doesn’t include significant changes to gun laws. Separately, the Justice Department has taken an incremental step towards banning “bump stocks,” the devices that make semiautomatic weapons fire like fully automatic firearms; its sops to the NRA include support for “rigorous firearms training” for some schoolteachers, a contentious idea that has drawn sharp opposition from the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ lobby.

The surest sign that Trump is backing away from meaningful action is the creation of a Federal Commission on School Safety, to be chaired by education secretary Betsy DeVos. Given that Trump had publicly mocked such commissions just a day earlier, and given that DeVos has been excoriated for her lack of knowledge about her portfolio, this process seems doomed to irrelevance. In an interview the day after the announcement, DeVos failed to adequately explain the details of Trump’s school safety plan, including how a program to arm teachers would work, simply claiming that “everything is on the table.”

Trump defended his proposals in a series of tweets on 12 March. “Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House,” said one. “Legislation moving forward. Bump Stocks will soon be out. Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent.” Then: “On 18 to 21 Age Limits, watching court cases and rulings before acting. States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly).” And then, in support of promoting guns in schools: “Almost all school shootings are in gun free zones. Cowards will only go where there is no deterrent!”

The Republican leadership is acutely aware that it has little room to manoeuvre without activating the NRA and the gun rights community ahead of the November midterm elections. Their likely hope is that gun-control efforts will founder once again, a plausible scenario given that the plan to arm teachers may well serve as a poison pill that ensures the necessary Democrat support won’t be forthcoming. Beyond tweeting, Trump shows little interest in driving this legislation, and his backflips have undermined his ability to negotiate with Democrats.

To date, the Parkland activists and their families have had one major victory, though they themselves describe it as “a baby step but a huge step at the same time.” On 9 March, Florida governor Rick Scott broke his personal and the state’s longstanding lockstep with the NRA to sign a school safety bill that places new restrictions on guns while balancing, he said, “our individual rights with need for public safety.”

The bill raises the minimum age for buying rifles from eighteen to twenty-one, widens the current three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long guns, and bans bump stocks. It creates a “guardian” program, enabling some schoolteachers and other school employees to carry guns, and new school mental health programs, and establishes an anonymous tip line for reporting threats. It also seeks to improve communications between schools, law enforcement agencies and state agencies. But it doesn’t ban assault-style weapons like the AR-15.

The NRA retaliated immediately, insisting that the measure “punishes law-abiding gun owners for the criminal acts of a deranged individual” and suing Florida over the new law.

While social media, nationwide school walkouts, and the hundreds of March for our Lives events are keeping the momentum going, it is clear that this is not a fight that will be won quickly or easily. Ultimately, the most likely route to change will be via the ballot box. The students themselves recognise this, and groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, are aiming to ensure that as many eligible high school students as possible are registered to vote in November. ●

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