“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” President Barack Obama told residents in Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the December 14th shootings that killed 20 school children and seven adults, including the gunman. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” he added.
The tragedy shook America and Mr. Obama promised to use the presidency – “whatever power this office holds,” as he put it – to prevent similar massacres.
Vice-President Joe Biden, tasked by his boss to come up with a legislative and administrative response to Newtown, on Tuesday submitted his gun control recommendations. Mr. Obama will present the proposals to the public Wednesday.
The measures reportedly include 19 executive orders the President could implement without the approval of the U.S. Congress. Mr. Biden has consulted police, teachers, politicians, gun owners, the video game industry, mental health workers, and groups calling for greater gun restrictions. Here are five things to keep in mind as the debate over America’s gun culture and gun control tops Mr. Obama’s second-term agenda.
Americans are rushing to buy guns and ammunition ahead of any new gun restrictions and there are reports of near-empty displays in gun stores.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and reported by the New York Times , December witnessed a 58 per cent spike in criminal background check applications compared to the same period a year earlier. Such checks are required ahead of gun purchases.
Also, the National Rifle Association, which already has over four million members, can count 100,000 new members in the wake of Newtown.
The NRA’s plan in the wake of Newtown to put armed guards in all schools caused a stir and generated outrage. But the voice representing millions of gun owners remains a powerful opponent of gun control.
Assault weapons ban
Expected among the key gun control measures recommended by Mr. Biden is the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 until it expired in 2004.
Newtown shooter Adam Lanza used a .223-calibre Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle; gun control advocates argue that such rifles should be banned. But gun rights advocates argue that Mr. Lanza used an assault rifle registered under his mother’s name, so a ban on such guns would not have prevented the massacre.
Newtown’s police chief, Michael Kehoe, told NBC News on Monday that an assault weapons ban was necessary, in part, because police using Glock pistols should not have to face a shooter carrying a more powerful weapon.
“We never like to think we’re going to be outgunned in any situation we’re dealing with,” he said. “We do a good job of securing dynamite in our society. … [Assault rifles] are another form of dynamite. … I think they should ban them,” Mr. Kehoe said.
On Sunday, NRA chief David Keene told CNN that an Obama administration assault weapons ban would not pass through Congress. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also a gun owner and NRA member, hinted the same. “An assault weapons stand-alone ban – on just guns alone ... in the political reality that we have today, will not go anywhere,” said Mr. Manchin.
High capacity magazines
Part of the 1994 assault weapons ban dealt with high capacity magazines. In the Newtown massacre, the shooter fired off more than 100 shots using 30-round magazines.
Those kinds of magazine clips are widely manufactured and sold. A new gun control initiative would likely seek to ban the manufacture and sale of such clips if they hold more than 10 rounds. But, as often pointed out by the gun rights lobby, it’s unlikely the ban would deal with existing high capacity magazines already owned by millions of Americans.
During a news conference Monday, President Barack Obama outlined key aspects of any gun control initiative. A “sensible” effort to reduce gun violence would include, among other things, a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
”Will all of them [gun control proposals] get through this Congress? I don’t know. But what’s uppermost in my mind is making sure I’m honest with the American people and with members of Congress about what I think will work,” Mr. Obama said.
Universal background checks
Most of the attention in the wake of the Newtown shootings has focused on banning semi-automatic assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips. But the gun control measure that has the best chance of passing Congress would involve tightening background checks on prospective gun buyers.
Currently, there is a national background check system in place. But a loophole – the so-called “gun show loophole” or the private sale of guns – permits the sale of used guns without requiring a background check.
The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence estimates that up to 40 per cent of all gun sales exploit the loophole. The campaign, one of the most organized gun control groups, has made universal background checks its No. 1 priority following the Newtown massacres.
“[Convicted] felons, domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill and other prohibited purchasers can easily purchase guns with no questions asked. Calling it a “gun show loophole” trivializes the problem. “Universal background checks” on all gun sales would have a clear positive impact on public safety and is also clearly compatible with the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns,” said the group in a statement released last Friday.
The group also points out that this particular gun control measure has overwhelming public support – including 74 per cent of NRA members. The support is clearly not unanimous, as Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, told Fox News.
“It’s a false security to think that somehow we’re going to spot problems when there’s really no way to spot these problems. Some of the most horrendous of the mass murders that have occurred recently, including the one in Newtown, would not have been stopped by a background check,” Mr. Pratt said.
A Gallup poll released Monday shows that more Americans (43 per cent) think existing gun laws are satisfactory than unsatisfactory (38 per cent). As the poll points out, the percentage of those surveyed dissatisfied has jumped 13 points since last year and is currently at a 10-year high.
“After a decade of little change in Americans’ overall level of satisfaction with the nation’s gun laws, significantly more now express dissatisfaction and want laws to be stricter. It’s yet another sign that the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December have given Americans pause on the issue, at least in the short term,” states the Gallup analysis.
But there might also be a long-term argument for changing views on gun control.
Mr. Obama won the election with the help of a coalition of a growing coalition of women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and gays and lesbians. As pointed out by the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein, surveys show that a majority of the Obama coalition (61 per cent) supports gun control over gun rights.
“Gun control, in fact, remains a majority position with the same groups generally most enthusiastic about Obama’s recent embrace of gay marriage, free access to contraception in health insurance, and an administration version of the Dream Act for young illegal immigrants,” Mr. Brownstein wrote in an article published last summer on the politics of gun control.
“It’s also possible that if Obama or other leading Democrats made a more forceful case for gun control, support for it in Obama’s coalition would rise further, back toward its levels when [President] Clinton was articulating the argument for limits,” he adds. During the Clinton years, between 57 and 66 per cent of Americans picked the importance of gun control measures over gun rights in Pew surveys. Those numbers have been dropping consistently ever since. The latest Pew survey shows that 47 per cent said gun control was more important while 46 per cent favoured gun rights.