Mass shootings at American high schools, colleges, movie theatres, and workplaces over the past 15 years have done little to impact public opinion or national policy on gun control in the USA. However, the scope of revulsion and outrage over the execution-style slaughter of 20 children and six adults by a lone gunman at a Connecticut elementary school last Friday has many Americans asking whether the massacre marks a tipping point in the national debate over gun rights. US President Barack Obama told mourners at a vigil Sunday evening in Newtown CT, the site of the mass killing, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change”. Obama didn’t outline any specific policies he might seek to implement, although he told the vigil, “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens … in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this”.
Several high-profile members of the US Congress have publicly voiced support for a new push to tighten restrictions on firearm ownership in the wake of the tragedy as well. One of those lawmakers, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), famously aired a 2010 campaign ad in which he loaded a rifle and fired a bullet through a piece of paper reading “Cap and Trade Bill”, a piece of environmental legislation that he opposed. Manchin told MSNBC in an interview that, as a hunting enthusiast, he supports re-examining laws that allow people access to the types of weapons and ammunition commonly used in these deadly attacks. Manchin, a Democrat who’s been praised in the past by the influential National Rifle Association (NRA) for his pro-gun stance, said in the interview, “I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about”.
American politicians are famously skittish about pursuing legislation aimed at tightening government control of gun ownership, and a call for gun reform by high-profile elected officials who’ve received the NRA’s stamp of approval… like Manchin… could provide momentum for new legislation, said Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy at Duke University. However, Goss, author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, believed that sustained grassroots pressure on politicians would be more important, saying, “To what extent will the American people actually mobilise in a sustained way to push leaders to take seriously these gun rampages and enact policies of any sort that might reduce their numbers?” A gun control petition on the White House website’s “We the People” section has shattered the record for the number of signatures for a proposed initiative since the platform’s launch in September 2011, gathering more than 150,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. However, Goss said that meaningful reform would likely only come if public pressure on officials lasts “more than a news cycle”.
Respected public opinion research organizations have noted that mass killings in the USA in recent years haven’t sparked such sustained drives. On Monday, Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, wrote on the research centre’s website that despite a string of mass shootings from April 1999 to October 2012, “Americans have, in general, become less likely to say that the country needs stricter gun control laws”. Constitutional scholar and gun control sceptic Eugene Volokh told RIA-Novosti on Monday that Friday’s mass shooting, like previous analogous crimes, is unlikely to result in stricter gun laws in the USA. Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law, said that the argument that federal laws restricting guns will stem these kinds of attacks is spurious and the American public has repeatedly rejected them. Volokh told RIA-Novosti, “The only guide we have for the future is the past. What we see in the past is that people haven’t much reacted to those kinds of arguments when it comes to translating them into policy”.
However, Goss said that gun control advocates might have grounds for optimism, given that national lawmakers aren’t currently facing an election cycle. She said that gun reform isn’t an issue politicians are “eager to tackle in an election year”. Yet, Gross added, however, that getting a significant gun reform bill through the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives could prove difficult, saying, “The moderate Republicans who used to come over and support gun control measures are an extinct species in the House. It’s really hard for me to see major gun control legislation going through the House in this Congress unless something really dramatic and unexpected happens”.
18 December 2012