Does US need gun control or better mental health services?
Political reality means President Obama faces uphill battle to introduce gun controls
BARACK OBAMA promised to use "whatever powers" his office held in an effort to prevent more tragedies like the massacre of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school on Friday.
"We can't tolerate this anymore," he told families attending an interfaith vigil in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday. "These tragedies must end and to end them we must change."
He did not use the phrase "gun control", but as the BBC correspondent Mark Mardell writes this morning, it was "the strongest pledge a president has ever made to wrestle with the powerful gun lobby".
But can Sandy Hook make a difference?
The Republicans control the House of Representatives and the all-powerful lobby group, the National Rifle Association, with more than four million members, spends millions a year supporting pro-gun Republicans and attacking reformist Democrats. If Obama takes on Congress, he could have a tougher fight on his hands than he did with his health care bill.
Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast points out that after the Aurora cinema shooting Obama said, "We all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country." But he did virtually nothing.
"Most Democrats have long shied away from the gun-control issue as political poison," says Kurtz. "And while the death toll in Newtown is ratcheting up the pressure for the president to take what he calls ‘meaningful action’, it is not clear that he can—or will—mount a legislative effort against the power of the National Rifle Association."
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a statement about the Newtown tragedy, he said nothing about gun control, notes Kurtz. Reid enjoys NRA backing.
Despite previous massacres like Aurora and Virginia Tech, public support for gun control has weakened in recent years. "All of the policy momentum in the last 20 years has been in the direction of gun owners' rights," James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, told the BBC.
As David Frum explains in the Sunday Times, violent crime figures are actually down by a third since the early 1990s and citizens are "safer from crime today than at almost any time since record-keeping began".
But the statistics are not reflected in people’s perceptions. "More and more Americans perceive a country of increasing rather than decreasing danger and more and more of them espouse an ideology of self-help in the face of those imaginary threats," says Frum.
As a result, says George Skelton in the LA Times, Americans who keep guns – approximately 300 million weapons in total – increasingly buy them not for hunting but for defending themselves. "The broad support for healthy, recreational gun ownership that my generation grew up with has faded," says Skelton. "It has been replaced with a narrower gun worship based on a fear of other humans."
That is reflected in the latest revelations coming of Newtown, where friends and neighbours say shooter Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy was a "paranoid survivalist", stockpiling weapons for the day society finally breaks down.
The hard political realities will make it hard for President Obama to turn rhetoric into what he calls "meaningful action". But if gun control proves too great a hurdle, could he at least do something about America poor mental health services?
Whatever his motive, Adam Lanza has been described as a "troubled loner" and possibly autistic. As David Frum writes: "Conventional murder, robbery and other crimes are susceptible to prevention by good police work and deterrence by punishment. The people who commit massacres, however, do not fear getting caught. They typically expect to die in the course of their attack, cut down either by police or by their own hand.
"It is mental health systems that must stop them, if they are to be stopped — and mental health services in the United States are both threadbare and lacking in power to compel treatment."