“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So reads the second amendment to the United States constitution, and that’s where all the trouble starts. It’s been said ad nauseam that the social and political realities of 1791 made this, if not a sensible piece of lawmaking, then at least a comprehensible one. In 2012 it is socially and politically superfluous, and this is demonstrated with heart-breaking regularity.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.


In the US around 80 Americans are killed by guns every day; about twice that number are injured by them. Once or twice a year somebody exercising “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” slips their moorings so comprehensively that their actions make international news. Then the world gasps dumbstruck as a Connecticut, or a Colorado Theatre, or a Virginia Tech, or a Columbine inscribes itself indelibly onto America’s blood-stained history.

There are more. Many more.

Do not, however, expect the tragedy that unfolded at Connecticut to be a catalyst for profound reform of American gun laws. Such reform would be unprecedented and faces a number of virtually insurmountable obstacles.

The most obvious of these is the form legislation inevitably takes before Democrats and Republicans could see it enacted. Take the Clinton gun ban, for instance, or to give it its complete name, the “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994. The names sound fierce; you’d imagine all the really nasty weapons were snatched and melted down on the spot.

Not so. For starters, the bill had a 10-year “sunset clause” (it’s no longer binding, in other words, and hasn’t been for eight years), it only limited certain features of certain weapons (folding or telescoping stocks, pistol grips, high-capacity magazines, threaded muzzles and so forth) and, glory of glories, if you already owned a weapon with such features, it was “grandfathered”. That is, noted, stamped and suddenly worth about four times what you paid for it.

It’s also worth noting fully-automatic weapons are not illegal in the US. So long as the receiver was manufactured prior to 1986 and you have the will to do some paperwork and a bundle of cash, owning a machine gun is perfectly kosher.

This is the environment any politician wishing to enact serious gun reform must work in. An environment in which there are 90 guns for every hundred people, and in which many gun owners see legislative reform of gun ownership as a sinister first step to disarm good red-blooded citizens.

There also exists in America a large number of people who believe their government is a potential enemy. The average militia nutcase stockpiling ammunition and weapons doesn’t just fear foreign but rather domestic enemies. How would one expect such a person to react to the local sheriff asking them to hand over their arsenal?

In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, Australian authorities had a relatively simple task: public opinion was galvanized by an event without precedent in Australian memory, relatively few members of an overwhelmingly metropolitan population owned guns anyway, and a buy-back scheme was therefore never going to break the bank. There was no legislative or constitutional provision protecting a citizen’s right to pack heat.

Not so in the US.

Forget the politics for a second. Dismiss the obscene power wielded by well-organised lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association, don’t worry about the constitution and ignore the odd nutter who thinks “from my cold dead hands” is a sexy war cry. Just how exactly is anybody going to be able to collect and destroy about 100 million especially dangerous weapons and (here’s the kicker) compensate the owners for them?

Where’s that kind of money coming from with the US in the financial state it’s currently in?

So don’t expect “meaningful action”. Don’t expect a sudden paradigm shift in American gun politics. Expect more of the same.


Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%