Feature

Gun control: Can any law prevent the next Newtown?

Today, America has 80 million gun owners, and their weapons are potent cultural symbols.

No law can change a fundamental reality: America has “a gun culture,” said Henry Allen in The Washington Post. So when President Obama last week proposed the most ambitious firearms-control package in generations—including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and instituting mandatory background checks on all gun buyers—he was defying not only the National Rifle Association, but more than 300 years of history. Guns have been central to our nation’s identity since the first settlers arrived in New England and fought bloody battles with Indian raiders. In the 1700s, the Kentucky rifle became a “symbol of frontier independence,” and when America expanded westward, “cowboys carried Colts the way noblemen carried swords, as blazons of their status.” The revolutionaries who founded the nation drove out the British redcoats after they tried to seize their guns. Today, America has 80 million gun owners, and their weapons are potent cultural symbols, signifying independence, self-defense, and family and regional tradition. As the president is about to discover, “changing a culture is a lot harder than changing the law.”

Perhaps it’s time we changed that culture, given that gun violence kills more than 30,000 Americans every year, said Charles Kenny in Bloomberg Businessweek. America has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with nine guns for every 10 people. Not surprisingly, the U.S. “also has by far the highest level of gun violence” among 23 advanced nations. In 2005, 5,285 U.S. children were killed by gunshots, compared with 57 in Germany and none in Japan—a country with some of the most restrictive gun-control laws in the world. While many Americans think their guns make them safer, research shows that a gun in a household is 12 times more likely to be used to shoot a household member or guest than an intruder. Another study found that gun ownership triples the risk of homicide in that home, and more than doubles the risk of suicide. Obama’s relatively modest gun-control proposals won’t end this epidemic of violence, said Adam Gopnik in NewYorker.com. But tougher regulations on the military-style weapon and oversized magazines Adam Lanza used to gun down 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., could reduce the toll of mass shootings. The president’s aim “is not perfection; it is simply to make it very hard, rather than very easy, for crazy people bent on homicide to get their hands on weapons.”

Obama’s proposals are mostly empty political gestures, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. Take his proposed ban on assault rifles. These weapons are just “ordinary rifles tricked out and blinged up to resemble something else: military arms designed for the battlefield.” Few criminals use them. In 2011, 6,220 people were killed with handguns, compared with 323 by all rifles, including so-called assault weapons. Increased background checks won’t slow gun violence either, because, “as a rule, the people who sell guns to criminals are criminals, who do not make a fetish of complying with federal regulations.” As for the proposed ban on clips that hold more than 10 bullets, said Rich Lowry in Politico.com,this would only have made a difference in Newtown if you presume that Lanza—an experienced firearms user—“would have been incapable of reloading in the permissive environment of an elementary school without a guard.” No gun-control law can ensure that Newtown never happens again, and in a country where the Second Amendment is revered, Obama has little chance of forcing his pointless proposals through Congress.

Don’t be so sure of that, said Glenn Thrush, also in Politico.com. The senseless slaughter of Newtown’s children, killed “as they sat, bright-eyed, in their classrooms, pencils on paper,” moved Obama in a profound, personal way. Having ignored gun violence in his first term, he now feels “a moral imperative’’ to use the power of the presidency to get at least some of his proposals passed. The massacre had a similar effect on the public—58 percent now back a ban on assault rifles, and 85 percent support background checks for all gun purchases. Obama’s critics are right: We will never be able to prevent all mass shootings, said Michael Shermer in the Los Angeles Times. Nor can we end gun violence in a country with 300 million guns. But “that doesn’t mean we are helpless.” Taking some strategic steps to reduce the carnage—such as denying deranged people the means for firing 45 bullets in a minute—“is altogether rational and reasonable.”

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