“Hard cases make bad law”: emotionally wrenching events are not usually the best basis on which to make policy decisions, precisely because they engage our emotions rather than our rational faculties. But sometimes, particularly when a debate has stagnated, it can take something dramatic to enable any sort of action at all. So it is unavoidable that the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school has set off a debate on gun control in America and around the world.
The prospects of change are helped by the fact that the United States has just finished its election season and its president has a renewed mandate. This is the point in the cycle at which politicians can focus most on good policy with the least anxiety about re-election. But for proponents of gun control, the good news pretty much ends there.
If Barack Obama has any intention of pushing serious gun control he will face enormous political resistance, because that is just the direction to which his opponents are already attuned. Nixon could go to China; Bill Clinton could “end welfare as we know it”; Obama, even, could escalate drone warfare. All those moves brought political gains, but confirming people’s fears carries only risk.
This is why the comparison with John Howard after Port Arthur is so inapt. Howard was taking on his natural supporters with the support of his usual opponents — for Obama it would be the reverse. Almost nothing excites the paranoia of the American Right so much as the idea of a black man taking away their guns.
It was not always thus; once upon a time, gun control was promoted by the white establishment to keep guns out of the hands of vengeful blacks (there was a fascinating account in The Atlantic). But now that gun ownership is widespread, the priority in the heartland — fuelled by such well-funded lobby groups as the National Rifle Association and the even more extreme Gun Owners of America — is to hold onto their own weapons to fight off the black/Muslim/communist hordes.
Even as the carnage from mass shootings continues to mount, the cause of gun control in America has gone steadily backwards. Support for stricter gun laws has been trending downwards for the last 20 years, and it has become much more of a partisan issue. No Republican with any sort of national ambitions can afford to be less than subservient to the gun lobby.
Legal developments reflect that. The federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire in 2004, and although the President has indicated he would support its renewal he has clearly not made it a priority. Democrats will now try to send a new version to his desk. And in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v Heller the Supreme Court for the first time interpreted the second amendment as conferring an individual right of firearm ownership.
I’m a moderate when it comes to gun control; indeed by Australian standards I count as pro-gun because I believe those who want to should be allowed to own handguns for self-defence. But the American debate has swung much too far in the opposite direction: much more could and should be done to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them.
The second amendment itself contains the words “well regulated”, and Justice Scalia in Heller pointed out that the decision “should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” It won’t do to just blame the constitution for widespread gun ownership.
But there’s something deeper than gun control at issue here. As I said last year, when discussing the remarkable example of Switzerland, “the relationship between gun ownership and gun use is anything but simple”. Other developed countries manage to keep homicide under control despite widely differing patterns of gun ownership. America does not.
See, for example, the graph of OECD assault deaths doing the rounds of the internet this morning (taken from Sociological Images). It’s not confined to gun deaths, but it shows that, despite a recent sustained decline, Americans kill one another at a rate three times greater than elsewhere. Gun ownership and the political support it receives are symptoms at least as much as causes.
That’s not to deny that some measures of gun control would be worthwhile. But even if, most improbably, Obama were to succeed in taking away his countrymen’s guns, it would not really solve the problem. What somehow needs addressing is the rage and paranoia which, among other effects, makes gun control such an uphill battle.