The Right To Bear Arms and to Expect Political Honesty

Irrespective of one’s political perspective, the tragedy that has rocked the United States this week is one that is particularly appalling. The death of over 20 children in such circumstances is beyond comprehension and has rightly raised serious questions as to the environment in which it occurred. I have sought to bring together my developing thoughts on this subject on this post, which includes various writings and interviews….

Yet for any serious discussion to occur there is the need for political honesty and right now, that is sadly lacking. It is not enough for President Obama to weep from one eye and talk about the need to change. If this is all he has to offer then it is a real indictment of his presidency. It is also politically dishonest. To deliver a speech in which the president reads the names of the deceased and then insist that America must change, without mentioning the words “gun” “control” and “legislation” is politically dishonest, for it suggests that change can be delivered upon whilst refusing to utter the very words that would be required for this to happen. This is not leadership: It is political posturing of the very worst kind. The tragedy in Connecticut is likely to be compounded by a total lack of meaningful reaction.

In case this is perceived as a right-wing rant against a Democratic president and an attempt to use the tragedy to attack Obama for political reasons, let me mention that I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1990s, and lobbied Congress in gun control legislation. As a European you would expect no less, I’m sure, since those of us in Europe who have a special place in their hearts for the United States often struggle to comprehend the nation’s embrace of firearms. As I have sought to highlight in various interviews, my stance on this matter is far from philosophical or ideological.  As a long-term student of the United States it is clear that this latest tragedy fits an all too appalling pattern of horror and inaction. Consider any related tragedy over the last 15 years and you will recall the initial reaction of horror, political and media soul-searching followed by….nothing. There is, alas, little in this latest tragedy to suggest that anything will be any different. Even the initial statements by politicians and the NRA will doubtless lead to any meaningful change.

President Obama has spoken on gun control but has done little on the subject in this first term. Indeed, he has repeatedly sought to placate gun owners in the vain hope of securing their vote. Fear that he may have implemented serious gun control legislation promoted a spike in gun sales following his election in 2008 and in the lead up to 2012, but this is based on emotion, not reality. The reality is that President Obama has done little, if anything, to restrict gun ownership. His declarations this weekend mask the fact that in terms of gun control legislation, he is as much a part of the problem as his political opponents, who will doubtless receive a great deal of the blame in coming days.

This is an area that has witnessed not only political dishonesty but also political cowardice. In the 1960s President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were killed by firearms. Subsequent shootings have involved Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and Gabby Gifford. Four American presidents (almost 1 in 10) have died at the hands of gunmen. Yet Congress has failed to act even when fellow politicians have been the target. The only serious effort to pass gun control legislation was the Brady Bill, signed by Clinton in 1993, which introduced background checks into gun purchases, and the Federal Assault Weapons ban of 1994, again signed by Clinton, which lapsed in 2004 and has not been renewed since. Clinton was able to get these bills passed in his first two years in office when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House. Such a political climate does not exist today.

To enact serious reform would require serious political leadership, and this is in short supply in Washington. It takes no leadership to make a statement imploring America to change. If Obama truly wishes to initiate the change of which he speaks, he will need to make it a priority for his second term. As he campaigned without expressing a specific agenda for the next 4 years, this would at least give his administration a domestic focus. However, with the Republican control of the House of Representatives, he has little to no hope of implementing any such legislation.

If legislation is impossible to consider passing, then changing the Constitution is even less likely and is an area in which the president is a mere spectator. To do so both houses of Congress must propose and endorse an amendment with a 2/3 majority. Then 2/3 of the nation’s state legislatures must approve the amendment within 7 years. Since 1787 only 33 amendment proposals have ever received sufficient support from Congress and only 27 eventually gained popular support in the country. This figure includes the first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights), including the second amendment that is currently under the microscope. Therefore, in over 200 years, the constitution has only been altered on 17 occasions and 2 of these were to implement and then end prohibition. This was the only effort to us the Constitution to restrict rights and its was later repealed.

This is not a simple matter of banning guns. There are social, cultural and historical issues in addition to the political ramifications. The America that Europeans don’t visit is rural, where guns are a way of life. Are semi automatics necessary for hunting? No. But will efforts to restrict firearms be seen as an infringement of American constitutional rights? Absolutely. Irrespective of the political noises that will be expressed in the coming days, it would be unwise to expect any solutions any time soon.


JDB and the European Journal of American Studies

I am delighted to announce that the European Journal of American Studies, a peer-reviewed, academic journal, has published my latest article, entitled  ‘A Lost Opportunity: The Flawed Implementation of Assertive Multilateralism (1991-1993)’.

The paper examines the flawed efforts to continue a policy of assertive multilateralism into the Clinton presidency and the reasons why this failed. At its heart is a consideration of the mission in Somalia, dramatised in Ridley Scott’s movie, Black Hawk Down.

I hope you will take the opportunity to read the paper and I welcome any observations that you may have.



JDB and Channel 4 News

Many, many years ago I used to watch Channel 4 News in the UK and marvel at the appearances of academics, offering comment on breaking news stories, particularly on the break up of the Soviet Union and the rise of Yeltsin. Long before I had started a degree I saw this as a perfect life; working at a leading university, researching and teaching on your own specialist subject by day and darting into central London to appear on the television by night.

Today, after over 5 years of working with the media, I had the very great pleasure of appearing on Channel 4 News to offer insight and comment into the state of gun control legislation in the United States.

It as an appearance that meant a great deal to me and I hope you enjoyed it.

Overcooked Rice

So, after weeks of speculation it now appears certain that the next Secretary of State will…. Not be Susan Rice. In a surprise move the current US Ambassador to the United Nations has written to President Obama, asking that her name be removed from consideration for the position. Note that she has not been withdrawn from the nomination, as she had yet to be nominated for anything. For weeks she has been in a political twilight zone; a presumptive nominee, if you will. This is, therefore, a pre-emptive withdrawal in certain expectation of a disastrous Senate confirmation hearing that promised to pitch the White House against the forces of Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who is set to join the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of the nomination process. One wonders if this news was a tipping point for the White House and for Rice’s prospects.

This nomination process has been presented in some quarters as political posturing run amok, but it is vital to recall that the United States Senate has the constitutional authority and responsibility to approve presidential appointments of this nature and it is clear that Rice has serious questions to answer in key areas, not least of which is the debacle that occurred in Benghazi, for which she may well become the administration’s unwitting fall-girl.

Beyond this, however, profound doubts have been raised about Rice’s temperament. For someone on the apparent cusp of being appointed American’s chief diplomat to be thought of as ‘ un-diplomatic, aggressive and brusque’, as was recently mentioned on The Daily Beast, is far from complementary. Her decision to ‘give the finger’ to Richard Holbrooke has clearly not been forgotten, and even if the former ambassador is not around to remind anyone of this incident, in Washington, DC, memories linger of such incidents.

Rice’s letter to Obama this evening does not mean that she will not serve in a second term. She remains the US Ambassador to the UN and could remain in this position, or possibly be named National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

With Rice now no longer in the running for the State Department, the question remains as to who will fill Hillary Clinton’s pumps. The delay in naming a foreign policy team has been remarkable and it appears clear now that this was due to the refusal of key Republicans to countenance the thought of Susan Rice as Secretary of State. Second terms often get second-rate teams, and this could be the case again. Instead, it now appears likely that a white male could return to the role for the first time since Warren Christopher (remember him? No, I didn’t think so) stood down at the end of Clinton’s first term.

The smart money is on Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The problem with this is that it would necessitate a Special election to replace him until the midterms of 2014 and whilst the state is heavily Democratic, Scott Brown’s upset victory following the death of Edward Kennedy demonstrates that the Democrats can take nothing for granted (unless they can find another Kennedy to run, perhaps?)

So, the shadow of Benghazi has now crept over Obama’s second term, before it has had time to begin. The scandal did not appear to influence the election result, but it has already claimed its first victim. It is worth noting that presidential scandals have traditionally occurred in the much sought after second term, and have been caused by an event in the later stages of the first term. If alarm bells are not yet ringing in the West Wing of the White House, then they should be. The second term is about to begin…It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting folks!