Will the Newtown massacre change the US gun culture?


Several weeks after the horrendous shootings in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the US public remains divided on the subject of gun control. The United States President Barack Obama called the day of the Newtown massacre “the worst day of his presidency”[i] and promised to take steps to curb gun violence. Yet, instead of taking a pause from the assault guns, the number of sold assault weapons following the unfortunate event of December 2012 sky-rocketed because of widespread fear that in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy gun ownership will be further restricted.[ii] Even so, the number of guns and gun-related deaths in the US may be closer to those of a country in civil conflict. The highly covered mass murder of Newtown’s elementary school is only the tip of a blood-soaked iceberg. According the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, each day 33 people die in gun-related violence in the US.[iii]  If so, why do so many in America continue their love affair with firearms?

Individualism and the Second Amendment

Americans are proud of their individualism. On a scale of one to ten, the US would rate number one. With this individualism comes the deeply rooted belief that each person has the right to protect himself or herself and thus to carry a gun. That right is engraved in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution voted on December 15, 1791, affirming the right for each individual to keep and bear arms for protection of his life, family and property. As it is part of the Constitution, it is practically a sacrosanct amendment, which can hardly be challenged with ease and even if it is getting challenged, changing this Amendment requires very high legal and legislative hurdles. This is one of the main points, which gun proponents use, when they argue in defense of gun-bearing. Yet, things have changed considerably since 1791. Even in the most remote parts of the country, the local police presence is not far away. There are new ways of transportation and fast communications such as roads, mobile devices, stationary phones, to name a few. In addition, the number of protective guns and those used for wild animal hunting is miniscule versus assault weapon guns, similar to those applied in war-torn areas such as in Afghanistan.

The gun culture is reinforced by politically powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and its well-funded lobbyists. NRA enjoys the support of both sides of the congressional isle with both Democrats and Republicans, especially those from conservative states, who are gun supporters. Two such examples: New York State senator, Kerstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), before becoming a US Senator, had pro-gun views[iv] which were partially influenced by the fact that she ran in a congressional district leaning pro-gun Republican. The other example is that of former US representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), a member of the so called Blue Dog coalition of moderate democrats. It has been reported that Ms. Giffords was even a gun enthusiast, which is rather common in her native state Arizona. In January 2011, Gabrielle Giffords became a victim of a shooting during which she barely survived after being bullet-struck in the head.[v] Obviously these two members, as well as many others, especially on the left, are mortified by these acts of gun violence. However, because of their constituencies and sometimes also their personal views, many politicians refuse to acknowledge at least publicly, the need to curtail gun sales and ownership in America. During his 2008 campaign, President Obama expressed support for reviewing the gun control bill which expired in 2004.[vi] However, once taking the office, preoccupied with a myriad of other pressing issues, that bill never came to fruition or review. There is also another underlying cause for inaction and this one is rather political: In 1994, when the ban on assault weapons was passed, it is believed that it resulted in the loss of 20 congressional seats for the Democrats during the succeeding election cycle. Thus, putting another similar bill may cost the political life of a comparable number of Democrats in the fragile swing states (the Republicans almost automatically will vote against the assault weapon ban). For the rest of the world, aside from the conflict and war-affected regions, this may seem like sheer madness. Conversely, in the US, owning a gun and not only just one gun but several, is symbol of status, potency and pride. It appears that Americans do not see the link between the number of guns freely available in the country and the deaths resulting from guns. Where is the common sense?

What can be done to reduce the gun related violence?

Fortunately, there are many influential figures, which have been consistently opposing assault weaponry, high-capacity gun magazines and semi-automatic rifles. The most significant amongst them are the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

After the Newtown massacre, Obama publically called for action on the matter and named Vice President Joe Biden to lead the Gun Violence Task Force,[vii] which has been charged to study gun related violence in the US. No wonder – as the memories of Sandy Hook elementary school shooting wane and the media turns its focus on other issues, the NRA and its supporters’ influence will return to cow into submission any politician who acts for change. We do not have to look far to see the lack of motivation amongst the politicians on this matter. Two years ago a gunman shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and while she survived six others died. In the aftermath of this unfortunate event, there was barely any serious action taken to ban assault weapons. Will this time be different? Possibly – to some extent. The NRA will fight back any such legislation. However, if the bill is put to a vote soon enough, it would be easier to pass while the gunshots from Sandy Hook Elementary still echo through the American psyche. It will be far from perfect: as of now, it will only limit the future sale of assault weapons and those guns already purchased will remain in their owner’s possession. And while any changes may entail mental health checks for the prospective gun owners what of the mental health of family members who live in the same household? The Newtown tragedy resulted from a semi–automatic rifle owned by the killer’s mother, who was a gun enthusiast. Yet, what would have been the result if the killer’s mental health had been check, too? Another initiative involves some states and cities implementing gun buy-back programs. The results of these programs are mixed. They tend to spike after horrendous tragedies and decrease as memories settle.

So far, Mayor Bloomberg offers the most sensible proposal: abolishing assault weapons without touching the right to carry sports and hunting guns, while revisiting any violence stemming from the media, video games, and movies.[viii]

It is clear that there is no one-size fit all solution to the gun violence in America – rarely such a solution is possible for one that touches passionate nerves, constitutional rights and a culture of gun ownership that reaches into the American notion of what it means to be free. Gun culture may yet be a reflection of what America is now but it may be a matter of time, maturity and development for America to overcome its addiction to guns while still retaining its faith in individualism and the power of the individual to change – without the gun.

[i]Huffington Post, Obama Learns About Sandy Hook Shooting, 04/01/2013, accessed on 04/01/2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/04/obama-sandy-hook_n_2409421.html January 4, 2013

[ii]Daily Tribune, Gun owners race to buy assault weapons before ban, 03/01/2013, accessed on 04/01/2013, http://www.dailytribune.com/article/20130103/NEWS01/130109802/gun-owners-race-to-buy-assault-weapons-before-ban

[iii]Bloomberg: Media need to rethink gun violence coverage‏, 04/01/2013 accessed on 04/01/2013, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/bloomberg-media-falls-short-covering-gun-violence-151547970–politics.html

[iv]The New York Times, Kirsten Gillibrand, updated  07/11/2012, accessed on 19/12/2012 http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/g/kirsten_gillibrand/index.html

[v]ABCNEWS, Jared Loughner’s Alleged Killing Spree: Personal, Political or Psychotic?, 10/01/2011, accessed on 22/12/2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/tragedy-tucson-jared-loughners-shooting-gabrielle-giffords-personal/story?id=12582324#.UOoZBLWFxoE

[vi]Dangelo Gore, Obama’s Gun Ban?, in Factcheck.org, 08/11/2008, accessed on 23/12/2012, http://www.factcheck.org/2008/12/obamas-gun-ban/

[vii]CBSNEWS, Obama sets up gun violence task force, 19/12/2012, accessed on 06/01/2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57560044/obama-sets-up-gun-violence-task-force/

[viii]Bloomberg: Media need to rethink gun violence coverage‏, 04/01/2013, accessed on 04/01/2013, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/bloomberg-media-falls-short-covering-gun-violence-151547970–politics.html 

Photo credit: Bloomberg

About Author

Maia Dimitrova

Maia Dimitrova is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Maia is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat. The focus of her work is economic and political risk analysis; international security, geopolitics, international relations, and US foreign policy. Ms. Dimitrova earned her M.A. at Sofia University, Bulgaria, and her M.S. in Global Affairs at New York University. During the course of her academic training, she completed a graduate specialization at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and a post-graduate specialization at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. She is fluent in French, English, Russian, Czech, and Bulgarian. She lives in New York.

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