Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Slaughter won't alter twisted logic of US gun lobby

The images are horrifically, shamefully familiar. Children with faces frozen in terror grasp each other's shoulders and file out into the school playground.

A mother engulfs her son, one of the lucky ones, in an embrace of pure thankfulness. White-knuckled parents clutch mobile phones to their ears, desperate for news.

These scenes have, in the past two decades, become as quintessentially American as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, or the Girl Scout cookie drive.

Although the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has packed more of an emotional punch than previous cases, the sequence of events that has followed already feels painfully, rigidly familiar, the well-trodden mixture of emotional outpourings and political inertia.

Congressmen steer away from thorny gun control debates, offering instead their "thoughts and prayers". A choked-up Barack Obama called for non-specific "meaningful action" to be taken.

But the White House was careful to temper that radical message with an assurance that "today is not the day to debate gun control", while giving no hint as to when that day might actually come.

To non-Americans, it seems incomprehensible that the murder of 20 first-graders wouldn't be enough of an emotional jolt to propel a radical change of the gun laws. I fear, however, that not even the slaughter of six-year-olds makes it more likely to happen.

The problem is that, in the US, the issue of gun control is not a symmetrical debate between two opposing points of view.

In America, the sheer raw symbolism of guns is hard for outsiders to comprehend. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the right to bear arms, is fundamental to the American psyche, leading to the peculiar doublethink that conflates guns inextricably with freedom.

Guns are not so much weapons that kill children, but the gleaming trophies of the proud American's fight against his imaginary oppressor.

Guns aren't just for citizens to defend themselves, they are a fundamental part of what makes them American in the first place.

It is a story that liberals rarely challenge on its fundamentals. However strongly the Left may argue for specific reforms, they are just tinkering around the edges.

It is the Right that defines the debate and it is a mark of the deep and enduring power of this narrative that it is left untouched by the mass murder of children.

In spite of the annual instalments of gun-related terror, there is virtually no mainstream movement to repeal the Second Amendment. Indeed, support for tougher gun control has fallen every year since 1990. In a 2010 Gallup survey, 54% of Americans wanted more lenient laws, or the status quo.

In the slipstream of this powerful and defining story, a bloated National Rifle Association continues to hold a metaphorical gun to lawmakers' heads.

While modest gun control bills are regularly introduced in Congress, they rarely progress further. Unwilling to waste political capital with Republicans on a seemingly unwinnable issue, the president has been reluctant to push forward.

It is hard to see how the moral absolutism that allows the murder of a 14-year-old to be explained as an unfortunate, but unavoidable by-product of freedom, could be shifted by the death of a seven-year-old.

It is difficult to imagine a more poignant tragedy than the one that struck in Newtown, Connecticut. But if the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook aren't enough to force change, then nothing is.

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