The Conversation

By David Weisbrot

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The Founding Fathers of the American Constitution might be open to criticism for the shaky syntax of the Second Amendment, but they could hardly have been more clear about its purpose.

In the immediate post-revolutionary environment, facing a continuing existential threat, and in the absence of a standing army or police forces, individual citizens had to be ready to grab their muskets and powder and rush to the defence of their fledgling country if needed.

Somehow, between 1788 and 2013, those words have been tortured beyond recognition to mean something along the lines of:

Disaffected and socially awkward young men, perhaps suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, with no ties whatsoever to the Army Reserve, the National Guard or any other well regulated defence or security group, shall not have infringed their right to keep and bear large numbers of high-powered, military-style, assault rifles, magazines holding up to 100 rounds of armour-piercing bullets, and semi-automatic pistols.

Not only has the syntax become much worse, but so has the slaughter. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which arose from the assassination attempt on President Reagan that seriously wounded his press secretary James Brady, more than 100,000 Americans are shot or killed with a gun each year.

More than one million people have been killed with guns since the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated as a public holiday in the US on Monday. Gun homicide is nearly 20 times higher in the US than in other comparable western democracies. The full impact of gun violence is estimated to cost the US about $100 billion a year.

Yet no amount of “wake up calls” — not Columbine, not Aurora, not Virginia Tech, not the shooting of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords — provided the momentum for any serious reform of American gun ownership laws. It appears, however, that last month’s mass murder at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School — literally the slaughter of innocents — has provided the shock, revulsion and political spine to effect needed change.

After the Newtown massacre, President Barack Obama assigned Vice-President Joe Biden to provide him with a set of recommendations for “meaningful gun reform”.

Following community consultation, the Vice-President delivered as promised, with a package recommending four major legislative reforms and 23 executive actions. President Obama strongly endorsed these recommendations in a national address — after which he immediately implemented some of them by signing a series of Presidential Decrees, witnessed by some of the surviving children from Sandy Hook and their families.

As widely predicted, some of the major proposals involve the President asking Congress to re-introduce and strengthen the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons (which was allowed to lapse in 2004) and limit the size of ammunition magazines to a maximum of ten bullets (New York has just moved to limit these to seven bullets in that state).

In addition, Obama wants to ban armour-piercing bullets, including their possession and transfer (and not merely their manufacture or importation); and allocate $50 million for schools, to be used at their discretion for security, security officers, counsellors and emergency planning.

On his own initiative — despite some Republican and gun lobby howls that he is exceeding his authority — the President signed decrees to require comprehensive background checks for all gun sales through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, removing the current massive loopholes for internet sales, gun shows and private sales, which account for more than 40% of gun sales in the US.

Other measures improve record-keeping, cooperation, coordination and information-sharing among government agencies holding information relevant to background checks; ensuring background checks include inquiries about the management of any mental illness and the improvement of gun-tracing technology and databases to help police track down gun crime perpetrators and avoid returning weapons to people inappropriately.

Rounding out this comprehensive package of measures, Obama intends to appoint a director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been leaderless since 2006; and remove the 15 year-old prohibition on the Center for Disease Control from conducting research into gun violence (yes, really).

Besides these legislative and regulatory proposals, there are important initiatives in some parts of the country to have public and quasi-public authorities divest themselves of all investments in the weapons industry.

Former Obama chief-of-staff and now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced that the city’s five major pension funds — holding almost $14 billion in assets — would begin a divestment review. Similarly, the board of one of California’s largest teachers’ pension funds has voted unanimously to divest from the firearms industry.

The pro-gun lobby will fiercely resist even the most modest and sensible reform efforts, of course. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has released a video denouncing President Obama as an “elitist hypocrite” for allowing his two school-age daughters to receive protection from armed Secret Service officers, while denying “ordinary families” armed guards at their schools.

The pressure on Congress from the NRA, the even loopier (yes, it’s possible) Gun Owners of America and other lobby groups will be more intense than ever, since they can see the possibility of reform finally eventuating.

As President Obama correctly stated at the end of his press conference, “I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe [Biden], but the only way we can change is if the American people demand it … ”

This article was originally published by The Conversation