America's disastrous relationship with guns is getting worse

Muhammad Zamir | Published: October 15, 2017 19:57:01 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:47

The world continues to reflect with horror the after-effects of the carnage left behind by gunman Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas, Nevada, on the night of  October 01, 2017 as thousands were enjoying an open-air performance by singer Jason Aldean. Paddock, a former accountant with a big gambling habit, lived in a community of senior citizens in the small town of Mesquite, north-east of Las Vegas. An elderly white American, not known to have been associated with any prior violence, he opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel on the unsuspecting audience. This resulted in the death of 58 persons and injuries to more than 500 others.  The shooting lasted for 72 minutes.

Police later found 23 guns in Paddock's hotel room, as well as "in excess of" 19 firearms and explosives at his Nevada home. But as yet, no clear reason for the killing has emerged. Investigators have found no link to international terrorism, despite a claim from so-called Islamic State in this regard. Some investigators have suggested psychological issues, but there is no confirmation of this. The shooter was not known to police.

The gunman planned his actions very carefully, and set up a number of cameras in and around his hotel suite. Paddock apparently committed suicide before police stormed his hotel room.

Critics have pointed out that gun regulations in Nevada are lax, even by US standards. State law makes no particular reference to automatic weapons of the sort which appear to have been used in this incident, although federal legislation prohibits the possession of fully automatic weapons unless they were registered before 1986.

Analysts have since pointed out that America's annual firearm-related death rate (10.54 per 100,000 of population in 2014) compares well with countries like Brazil (21.2) or El Salvador (45.6 in 2011) but is dismal compared to France (2.83 in 2012), the UK (0.23 in 2011) or Australia (0.93 in 2013).  it would take an ideologue or a madman to conclude that US gun policy is serving the country well. The basic fact is that gun homicides in America run into the thousands every year - more than 12,000 in 2015, up markedly on the previous year. The number of suicides by shooting has also been staggering: more than 22,000 in 2015. On an average up to 100,000 people annually might die or be injured as the result of gun use.

All four of the biggest mass killings in the USA have happened in the past decade.  BBC says that the October 01 maasacre was the worst mass shooting in the USA since 1991. The second worst was in Orlando, Florida in 2016 which left 49 dead; the third was in Virginia Tech, Virginia- in 2007 which left 32 dead and the fourth was in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012 which left 26 dead.

The Las Vegas shooting has sparked anew a debate over US gun laws and, quite correctly, prompted calls for reform of the existing laws. The anti-gun lobby is asking Trump to face up to the truth that America's disastrous relationship with guns is getting worse.

Critics have noted that, as with many of his political opinions, Trump's views on gun control also appear to have shifted to the right over the years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he expressed support for a ban on so-called assault weapons."I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun," he wrote in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve. In 2012, he even praised Democrat Barack Obama's call for more firearm regulation after the shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, school that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children.

One may recall Obama's initiative at gun control in the aftermath of the January 16, 2013 Sandy Hook shooting. He announced a plan for reducing gun violence in four parts: closing background check loopholes; banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines; making schools safer; and increasing access to mental health services. The plan included proposals for new laws to be passed by Congress, and a series of executive actions not requiring Congressional approval. The Executive actions taken by the Obama Administration included: improving the data used for the background check system for gun sales; directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence; providing incentives for schools to hire school resource Officers and providing law-enforcement forces additional tools to prevent and prosecute gun crime. In 2016 Obama also took another step regarding violence whereby all gun distributors would require a license and background check. Similarly, requirement was introduced for extended background checks for guns purchased via a trust or corporation. No new federal gun control legislation was, however, passed on the basis of these proposals.

President Obama later stated that "the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws. Even in the face of repeated mass killings. And you know, if you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it's less than 100. If you look at the numbers that have been killed by gun violence, it's in the tens of thousands."

Unfortunately his efforts turned on its head because of the subsequent US Presidential elections. As Trump began contemplating his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, his views slowly changed on gun control. By the time he announced his entry into the race in 2015, he was well within the mainstream of the Republican Party, which viewed most forms of additional gun regulation as a violation of Second Amendment constitutional protections. This was Trump's way of establishing his conservative cultural bona fides - proving that he was not the big-city liberal that the media had described him as.

 Though the emotional response from the White House in the wake of the Las Vegas mass killing has been reasonably heartfelt, the current US Administration is not displaying any sign that they are contemplating any political shift on gun policy. Trump has declined to call the attack an example of domestic terrorism. 

There is minimal political incentive for Republicans on Capitol Hill or the White House to take a risky move away from the GOP base on guns.

However, after this latest tragic incident, some in the Democratic Party have cautiously mentioned of the need to re-visit the existing scenario with regard to owning firearms. Hillary Clinton, who demanded gun control during her campaign, has called the massacre "terrible and sickening". She has observed that the Democrats need to understand that the issue will be a powerful mobilising force in the forthcoming elections in 2018.

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.




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