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Dec 18, 2012

Sandy Hook massacre pivot point in wretched gun debate

The massacre of young children in Newtown was so nihilistic and meaningless that it has exposed the empty rhetoric and false illusions of the US gun lobby. From Connecticut, our writer-at-large braces for a long fight.

With the first funerals from the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre being held today, the gun control debate has started swinging around for the first time in decades. After two days of mourning, small but active protests have begun, with an Occupy-organised crowd marching on the NRA headquarters in DC, Senate majority leader being joined by “Blue Dogs” such as nominal Democrat Joe Manchin from West Virginia in calling for legislative action based on assault weapons.

Former Mitt Romney advisors, GOP congressman-turned-broadcaster Joe Scarborough, and other have crossed the line to say that a real debate is required on what action to take. The pilot wave of this new movement was provided by the President, addressing the bereaved community of Newtown, telling the nation that “we’re not doing enough … and we will have to change”.

But change is far from certain to come. As Nate Silver detailed in a piece on his blog, the gun control debate has shifted sharply towards “second amendment rights” in the past decade, with a proposed ban on assault weapons dropping in op-ed and commentary mentions by more than 90% in the past decade, while “rights” has risen remorselessly.

Intensive lobbying by the NRA and others has all but nobbled any attempt to have a debate on guns, and ramrodded the fatalism by which massacres and gun frequency remain uncorrelated. The NRA has gone silent in the wake of Newtown — there’s been no tweeting since 14 December (“Florida nears one million permits for concealed weapons!”) and has taken its Facebook page down. None of the pro-gun lobby would appear on the Sunday morning talk shows this weekend, leaving the field clear to opponents.

That would suggest a movement about to cash in its chips, but of course it has one ace-in-the-hole — the second amendment, and a Supreme Court determined to take the broadest possible interpretation of the “right to bear arms”. Several years ago it struck down a handgun ban in DC, and it has dealt the same way with a range of similar laws in several states.

Even a law passed with thunderous acclaim in both houses could be thrown out by the court. That would leave things as they are — there are currently 10 gun control bills held up in the Senate — and waiting for the next massacre. That would put the country into a cultural-political crisis that might begin to suggest the most audacious possible move yet — a campaign to modify the second amendment (repeal is beyond the realm even of political stunts).

There is no doubt that something has changed with this massacre, for obvious, if irrational reasons. This was the first large-scale primary school massacre in the US by a young person (rather than a disgruntled teacher), and the pull of guilt at a society’s failure to protect its own children has become a powerful force against the homilies of the gun lobby. There was a similar sort of feeling at the time of the Columbine massacre, but less strong, even though the prospect of a teenager facing a violent and immediate death — with the full knowledge of imminent extinction and a life missed out on — seems equally horrific.

To continue the old “guns don’t kill people, people do” shtick in the wake of all this, now seems not clever or persuasive, but obscene and obtuse. Subsequent events seemed to confirm that society was, in this respect, spinning out of control; on Sunday, a morning church service in Newtown’s St Rose of Lima church had to be abandoned when bomb and gun threats were phoned in. The Huffington Post is now running a whole series of reports on individual murders here and there, to show the absolute carnage in a country, where nowadays you have to hit double figures to make an impact.

“The funerals will continue at Sandy Hook into — well, into Christmas. The new fight against a gun culture of symbolism and psychopathy has begun.”

It was inevitable that someone would come out in favour of guns in the wake of the tragedy, and in the US that was Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who suggested that the massacre would have been stopped in its tracks if the head teacher had had an M4 with which she could have “taken the shooter’s head off”.

In Australia, commentator Tim Blair echoed the call: “The first thing people do when some maniac begins firing a gun is to call for help from other people who carry guns. Just a thought, but it might be more efficient if those closer to the scene carried guns in the first place.”

The logic that the number of gun deaths in the US is going down, as the number of guns rises, has become part of the argument for “concealed carry” laws, which allow people to carry concealed weapons. In some limited circumstances these reduce crime. But gun murder has also fallen in areas where no such laws exist, as part of a general fall in overall crime.

Indeed a lot of the arguments that “there is nothing to see here” are spurious. It’s argued that the number of massacres hasn’t gone up since the ’20s. But in the ’20s many of these massacres were “rational crime” — they were either large family or clan feuds, gangsterism or the like. Much of this stuff now goes unreported. What passed for a massacre in the 20s, is Saturday night in Philadelphia now.

What has come out of the blue are stranger and semi-stranger massacres, which were almost unknown before World War II. Since Charles Starkweather, the killing of whole classes of people simply because they are co-workers, McDonald’s patrons or school students has gone through the roof. In their rush to defend guns, the gun lobby ignore this important shift.

The public doesn’t. They know that it is not merely the death but the meaning of it that matters, and the terror that goes with it. Newtown is so dominating, so unarguable because not the slightest rationality or purpose attaches to the crime, and hence to the deaths. It is a rip in the fabric of the universe, and most people — Americans included — don’t want to live in a world where that is as expectable as a car crash. The reality of Newtown is that the primary school has ceased to be a safe place in the everyday imagination. One massacre impacts tens of millions. The answer that more people should be armed simply takes society further in the direction of atomised war of all against all, that people are coming to stand up against. The Right don’t get it, because guns are a fantasy object for them. They render everyone less safe and less free, but they give the illusion of a pre-modern free society.

The funerals will continue at Sandy Hook into — well, into Christmas. The new fight against a gun culture of symbolism and psychopathy has begun. It will go well beyond the last interment, but it will be won.

There was never any doubt that it would take something special to create a pivot point for the US gun debate. I always thought it would be, say, three massacres in one week, double-figures jobs tripping off one on top of each other, the next one starting before the last had cleared. A change in the quality of the debate would come about from a change in quantity, the sheer number of dead. But in the end it was the reverse. It took a killing so atrocious, so nihilistic in character to open the floodgates of protest.

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57 thoughts on “Sandy Hook massacre pivot point in wretched gun debate

  1. Saugoof

    “Guns don’t kill people, people do”, guns just make it so much easier….

  2. Notmyname

    The answer could lie in the NRA’s name alone, National “Rifle” Association. Rifles, not assault weapons.

  3. paddy

    Well done Guy. A fine piece of sanity and realism amidst the chaos.
    The idea that traditional American “gun culture” might have actually reached its high water mark, is a stunning thought.
    But what an appalling horror was required to get there.
    Fingers crossed that the tide has truly turned.

  4. Phil L

    Guy, always loved your work, and the articles over the last two days make me respect it more.

    The sheer lunacy over the guns laws in America defies definition.

    The fact that so many of its citizens are terrified and paranoid about either the government or the neighbours is alien to me. Can anyone cite any research about why so many in the US feel the need to own assault rifles?

  5. Notmyname

    Phil L – I think you answered your own question, “Paranoid”. Get “him” before “he” gets me. Whoever Him and He may be.

  6. Liz45

    If I wanted to be really cruel, I could say that this tragedy is the fault of all Americans, including those whose children have been so horrifically murdered. When will they wake up? Get rid of these weapons. True, people pull the trigger, but if these weapons were not so readily available, without checks and balances at least, then this would NOT happen. Both Britain and Australia got these weapons out of the community AFTER such a horror – and there hasn’t been one since! (Sadly, I believe that Australia now has as many guns as were present when Port Arthur happened – need to tidy this up and soon!)

    I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve shed many tears since this horror unfolded! I should also add, that a similar number of children were killed in Afghanistan in recent days – without any sorrow from the West! I didn’t even know until a few hours ago! Hypocrisy rears its ugly head again!

    Anyone in the US can walk in and buy a gun. Laws have been lessened to the extent that in some States you can even take your gun to school, and have the right to shoot anyone you THINK may be a threat! Total and absolute madness! This has been borne out by the death in February of a young black teenager by a white ‘neighbourhood watch’ male? He’ll probably get let off scot free!

    A couple of sentences written down 200 years ago? The NRA have had the power – they’re the political arm of this prolific money spinner! Recent events appear to be removing some of their power – not one of their candidates was elected in the recent elections. Now’s the time for Obama to JUST DO IT! Get weapons of war off the streets, and make sure all applicants are scrutinised, and a law like ours, where weapons and ammunition have to be locked up in different places – and make sure police enforce these Laws! Only then will change be in evidence. Until then, we’ll all just wait until the next horrific tragedy!

    What price do they put on their kids? This god loving, god fearing country – the world’s biggest democracy, blah blah!

  7. tinman_au

    ““Guns don’t kill people, people do”, guns just make it so much easier….”

    Especially if that gun can fire 50+ rounds per minute…

  8. gerard

    People can make changes and constitutions are being rewritten all over the world. If this freedom (bearing arms) kills people, lets have less of it.
    In this global village it is not just America that ‘owns’ that kind of freedom and those that keep promoting guns are the ones on the trigger. The NRF and the supporting senators are the ones with the finger on the trigger. Bring those to account instead of the bodies of children now being burried.
    http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/international-court-of-justice-at-the-hague-bring-the-us-pro-gun-senators-to-justice

  9. Bartlett Geoff

    From the distance of a casual observer, I don’t see a lot changing in the U.S. as a result of this (I would like to be shown wrong on this).
    Give it a few weeks, a month or two, and the gun lobby will be back in full voice.
    #5 on the Tea Party’s list of non-negotiable core principles: Gun Ownership is Sacred. No less than sacred.
    The Tea Party cold fade away as did Pauline Hanson; but many of her views were co-opted by the mainstream parties, so not much hope there.
    Meaningful gun control would require strong bi-partisan support and a willingness to commit electoral suicide for a principle. Any takers?

  10. Charles Richardson

    I wouldn’t worry much about the supreme court if I were you Guy. Sure, something like a blanket ban on handguns would probably be thrown out, but that’d have zero chance of getting thru congress in the first place. Anything that could conceivably get past congress would pretty clearly be constitutional.

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