“We Have An Obligation To Try” – So What Can We Try?

Jill Lawrence at National Journal is less of a cynic than I am. I hope she’s right.

Not that Obama mentioned gun control in his speech at a memorial for the 20 children and six adults killed in a shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn. He didn’t. But as Atlantic associate editor Brian Fung pointed out on Twitter, Abraham Lincoln didn’t mention slavery in the Gettysburg Address, either.

Obama was clear enough when he said that this was his fourth speech to comfort a community after a mass shooting, and that we are not doing enough to keep our children safe. He was clear enough when he said that he would use the power of his office to try to prevent future massacres.

… Speaking as both a parent and a president, he made his case in plain language devoid of political rhetoric, stripped down to bare common sense: This can’t go on. Mass shootings cannot become routine and accepted in America. We’ve got to protect our children. We’ve got to take what steps we can.

It was one of the highest profile moments of Obama’s presidency, and he didn’t waste it for fear of igniting anger among gun-rights lobbyists and enthusiasts. He used it to start the process of winning hearts, minds and support for a sea change in gun politics.

Lawrence notes that “spending 3 minutes calling for gun control” is how many conservatives saw that part of Obama’s remarks, calling it inappropriate. Here is the full text of Obama’s remarks, and below the full relevant segment.

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America – victims whose – much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law – no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that – then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators – in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

It certainly sounds like the President is serious about doing something, even if so far the details on that something are vague. Still, I’ve believed he was committed to doing something before, often with far more specifics, only to have him do little to nothing. Closing Gitmo, rolling back intrusive and warrantless surveillance, making serious steps on combatting climate change, ending rendition, ending the senseless killing of civilians in foreign lands that mainly serves to fuel more militancy and fighting, holding the criminal rich to the same standards as the criminal poor, rolling back the Bush notion of an Imperial presidency – to name just a few. I understand that sometimes doing something isn’t easy in the face of opposition obstructivism, but I also understand that too often Obama has preferred to “maintain his options” rather than stand up and be counted – and didn’t the President just say that things being politically hard shouldn’t be an excuse?

But let’s suppose Lawrence is right. What could doing something to mitigate (we’ll never completely halt) the incidence of massacres like Newtown look like? What is in the real of the immediately possible, what is possible in the medium and longer terms, what is right out?

In the realm of the immediately possible: bans on assault weapons and extended magazines, along with far more rigorous and universal gun registration requirements. All would have an instant impact on the frequency and severity of these massacres, which have peaked since the assault gun ban was allowed to lapse and not reinstated. These measures have broad support among the US populace according to Peter Grier of the C.S. Monitor.

What’s clear is that US public opinion is against most flat gun bans. Seventy-three percent of respondents told Gallup that they would not support the banning of handguns, for instance.

Presented with detailed choices, however, many voters approve of particular moves to control or limit firearm ownership.

A ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, which can carry more than 10 bullets, appears to be widely popular. A 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey found 57 percent support for such a ban, and 39 percent opposition.

A CNN/ORC poll from last August found an almost identical result on the clip question.

As to whether all gun purchasers should undergo a background check to determine if they have committed a felony, 96 percent of respondents said “yes,” in the CNN/ORC survey.

Majorities also favored banning AK-47-style assault rifles, preventing convicted felons and the mentally ill from possessing firearms, and requiring gun owners to register guns with their local government.

The CNN survey showed Americans opposed limiting the number of guns an individual can own – but only by a 45 to 54 percent margin.

“The public favors most sensible gun policies, policies the US does not have,” concluded Harvard public health professors David Hemenway and Robert Blendon after analyzing public polls.

In the short term, there’s plenty of gun control legislation that could be revived – mostly centered around tightening the process of buying, registering and owning a gun safely, which right now is less regulated than the same process for a family car.

Limiting the number of guns one person could own would be an incredibly important step in controlling America’s runaway gun violence problem. There are lots of guns owned illgally, but someone had to buy them legally in the first place. Limiting the number of guns would, over time, bring down the number of illegal guns as a natural consequence – and could be paired with a national amnesty and reward program to encourage many to turn in their excess (and even illegal) guns. We’ll mark that one down as a medium-term possible, because the number of gun owners is shrinking and getting older.

 Data from the General Social Survey show that rates of gun ownership have been decreasing steadily for three decades. In 1977, 54 percent of American adults lived in a household that contained a gun. By 2010, that figure had declined a full 22 percentage points to 32 percent.

The explanations for this drop vary; a declining interest in hunting and the steady exodus from rural areas to suburbs and cities almost certainly play a role. Whatever the combination of causes, there have been steady declines in gun ownership among all age groups. Of particular note is the decline among young adults. In the GSS studies in the 1970s, around 45 percent of respondents under 30 years of age reported that their household owned a gun; in the most recent surveys that number has fallen below 20 percent, a decline of more than half. The decline has also occurred among all birth cohorts.

Barring a wholesale return to rural living or a boom in hunting, it seems unlikely that this trend will reverse. Demographic diversity will also likely contribute to a continued decline in gun ownership. White males own guns at higher rates than members of other groups, while gun ownership among African-Americans is lower, and ownership among Latinos and Asians is lower still. Every projection by demographers shows whites declining as a proportion of the American population in the next few decades, and Latinos are now the country’s largest and fastest-growing minority group. These factors will likely produce a continued, if not accelerated, decline in gun ownership.

Since there are a record estimated 300 million guns in private ownership we can reasonably conclude that many have arsenals which are entirely unreasonable for the purposes of hunting or self-defense. There are more than a few out there like the 60 year old Von I. Meyer, of Indiana, who was arrested Friday after allegedly threatening to “kill as many people as he could” at a school. Police found 47 guns hidden throughout his home. However, in the medium term – call it two presidential terms – demographics are going to help ease the passage of a law that would limit such arsenals.

In the medium to longer term, something can be done about an issue David Frum and others have identified – working to identify and help (and keep away from guns, if possible) the people who are most at risk of the kind of violent behaviours that might indicate they are “massacre shooter” material.

A permissive gun regime is not the only reason that the United States suffers so many atrocities like the one in Connecticut. An inadequate mental health system is surely at least as important a part of the answer, as are half a dozen other factors arising from some of the deepest wellsprings of American culture.

Nor can anybody promise that more rational gun laws would prevent each and every mass murder in this country. Gun killings do occur even in countries that restrict guns with maximum severity.

But we can say that if the United States worked harder to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be many, many fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut.

I say the long-to medium term because conservatives like Frum aren’t going to like the only possible solution much – a federally run or federally mandated but state-run system for a comprehensive, easily accessible and above all easily affordable mental health solution, involving identifying, screening, treating and if needed permanently carong for individuals who are dangerous to society because of an illness, i.e. through no fault of their own. If conservatives hated Obamacare they’ll positively loathe this because insurance companies will avoid it like the plague. That kind of mental illness is usually a pre-existing condition with little to no chance of remission without expensive ongoing treatement, so there’s absolutely no profit – just loss- in it for insurers. Make no mistake, to do it right we’re talking about nationalizing a whole segment of healthcare and throwing boatloads of money at it.

Finally, none of this will go anywhere without success in the short to medium term in neutralizing the power of the NRA, a $230million a year “charitable” business that has successfully lobbied since the mid 1990s not only for less gun control but also to defund and stigmatize even scientific data collection on gun crimes and gun atrocities. The gun lobby’s grip on almost all Republican lawmakers and far too many Democratic ones must be loosened somehow, or not a single piece of legislation to prevent such atrocities will be passed. Perhaps that can be done by exposing, then stigmatizing, the NRA’s anti-scientific efforts and its cozy relationship with gun makers. Perhaps many of the NRA’s 4.3 million members – a tiny fraction of all gun owners – will be just as disgusted as the rest of us by their association’s actions. It’s current extreme stance certainly cannot possibly represent the views of all of those members, let alone all gun owners. George Bush Senior resigned his membership in 1995 over the group’s excessive stance – in the aftermath of Newton the rest of us should encourage members we know to consider doing so too.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, an “A” rated member of the NRA, on Monday questioned the availability of assault weapons and suggested Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Conn. has opened up the issue for debate.

    Manchin said past debates about assault weapons have been shut down over a fear of destroying Second Amendment rights. But the senator said last Friday’s shooting changed all that. “The massacre of so many innocent children has changed—has changed America. We’ve never seen this happen,” Manchin said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

    Manchin issued criticism of assault weapons, saying, “I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anybody that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about.”

    Manchin, who received an endorsement from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund for his 2012 re-election race, is one of the most prominent gun rights advocates in the Senate to speak about assault weapons in the wake of the shooting.

  • Talk big grand talk. Do nothing. That’s 100% Obama.

    Wow. If there ever was a time that America needed real leadership, it’s now.

    I don’t think he can do it. He’s not made out of the stuff that will tell the truth to the NRA.

    And that’s a shame that will continue in the form of more massacres and beyond-the-pale gun-crime statistics.

    He’s the one that said “it must stop”. So what’s he’s gonna do?

    He doesn’t know because he doesn’t have an agenda yet.

    Sorry but after 5 years, I don’t think he is ever going to get a damn agenda.

    I would love to be proved wrong here, believe me.

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