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.


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