Nothing, we have been led to believe, can significantly change the American gun culture, a sickness so incongruous with the exceptionalism of that country.
But the Newtown child massacre in Connecticut is on such an echelon of calamity that it, indeed, can be the harbinger of transformation. Americans may finally be starting to realize that the threat of terrorism at home is as great, if not greater, than the threat of terrorism from abroad.
Choose your statistic. As Nicholas Kristof has pointed out in The New York Times, more Americans die from gun-related homicides and suicides in the space of half a year than have died in the past quarter century of terrorist attacks, as well as the Afghan and Iraq wars combined.
With Newtown, the politicians might clue in. They might have a change of mindset. They might be willing to devote even a small amount of those staggering sums they have devoted to their war on foreign terror to fight the terror at home.
To date, they have decamped. Inconceivably, the National Rifle Association, despite the multiple mass shootings of recent years, has been gaining in strength. Gun-owning regulations have been eased in many quarters. Just last week, in the days before Newtown, Michigan legislators passed a bill allowing concealed weapons to be carried in schools. In a ruling for Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois, a federal appeals court struck down a ban on carrying concealed weapons.
Though Democrats are at fault as well, it is primarily the Republicans who champion the NRA and the primitive minds who populate it. Newtown comes as another disgrace for what that party – already reeling from its antiquated positions on social and ethnic issues – stands for.
Barack Obama has just been re-elected. He has political capital. He is a leader with moral authority. In his first term, he was feckless in addressing gun control. He didn’t even push hard for an assault weapons ban. He may have been mindful of the drubbing Bill Clinton took from the gun lobby when, shortly after taking office in 1993, he tried to take it on.
But Mr. Clinton didn’t have a massacre of six- and seven-year-olds as a backdrop. Mr. Obama must move without hesitation. The danger is that today’s furor will be allowed to subside, that the “fiscal cliff” will overtake the firearms cliff on the news agenda. Facing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Mr. Obama might find it easier to attempt only modest anti-gun measures and move on.
No one should underestimate the emotional attachment of people to their guns. Even in Canada, we have noted this. In urban centres, we simply could not believe the extent of the opposition to the long-gun registry. Our police forces supported the registry, but even that was not enough to save it.
In addition to the NRA and Republican intransigence, Mr. Obama faces the reality of the Second Amendment, and the willingness of the courts to uphold it. But he can launch a campaign to change the mentality. He can couple legislative efforts with a massive advertising and education campaign that demonstrates how, in every other civilized society, stricter gun laws result in greatly reduced crime, murders, deaths.
Mental health issues are correctly identified as a root cause of the killing rampages. But laws that allow people with such afflictions ready access to firearms make no sense. The prevailing gun psychology in the U.S. is tantamount to a mental-health issue itself.
Adam Lanza’s mother had her house stocked with guns and assault weapons. She loved the single-mindedness of firing guns. She brandished her weapons to her landscaper on her porch. She took her son to target practice to show him how to aim. He learned well.
For Mr. Obama – who, it is be hoped, has seen Lincoln – to change the mentality and the laws, will be an enormous, risk-laden undertaking. But he has an historic opportunity that he must not let pass.