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Coffee House

Briefing: Obama and gun control

16 January 2013

6:43 PM

16 January 2013

6:43 PM

‘We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town from the grief that has visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.’ Barack Obama, 16 December 2012

Well, one month and 900 more gun deaths after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and six teachers were murdered, President Obama has set out the steps he intends to take to tackle gun violence in America. Of course, getting his proposed new laws through Congress — and particularly the Republican-controlled House of Representatives — will be tough. Here’s a breakdown of the main proposals:

More, better background checks

Obama wants legislation passed that requires background checks for all gun sales. At the moment, private sales are exempt, and these make up an estimated 40 per cent of all gun sales. But the President will allow ‘limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers among family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes’. This legislation should be able to find enough support to pass both houses of Congress. Obama will also use executive actions to improve the effectiveness of background checks, largely by increasing the amount of information going into the system. A new poll from the Pew Research Center found 85 per cent of Americans support extending background checks to private sales and gun shows.

Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines

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A Federal Assault Weapons Ban was enacted in 1994, banning many semi-automatic firearms, as well as high-capacity magazines that hold more than ten rounds. It expired in 2004 and was not renewed, but Obama wants Congress to renew it now. The Pew poll found 58 per cent supporting a ban on semi-automatic weapons, 55 per cent for a ban on assault-style weapons and 54 per cent for a ban on high-capacity magazines. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is in fact introducing such a ban in the Senate, but many Democrats have warned that it’s unlikely to pass the House. Obama also wants legislation banning the possession and transfer of armour-piercing bullets, and new gun trafficking laws.

Research the causes of gun violence

At the President’s direction, the Centers for Disease Control will begin research into the ‘the causes and prevention of gun violence’, and Obama has asked Congress to give them $10 million towards it. The research will include ‘investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence’. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 38 per cent of Americans believe that ‘violence in TV programs, movies and video games’ contributes to gun violence ‘a great deal’ and another 34 per cent think it contributes ‘somewhat’. And according to a new AP-GfK poll, 54 per cent support limiting it. Whether they’re right or wrong, as Obama said, ‘we don’t benefit from ignorance’.

Improving school safety

Obama will introduce incentives for more police departments to hire more ‘school resource officers’ (police officers assigned to schools), and also wants to increase the number of mental health professionals in schools. His administration will also help schools and similar buildings develop a ‘comprehensive emergency management plan’, as well as strategies to reduce bullying and other ‘problem behaviour’.

Focusing on mental health 

‘We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun’, the President said in December. The plans announced today include ‘Mental Health First Aid’ training, training more social workers, counsellors and psychologists, and ensuring that those Americans who now have health coverage thanks to Obama’s Affordable Care Act are covered for mental healthcare. The Washington Post poll found that 56 per cent of Americans think that inadequate mental health treatment contributes to gun violence ‘a great deal’, and a further 30 per cent say ‘somewhat’.

It’s going to be a lot of work for Obama to get Congress to agree to what amounts to the biggest stride forward in gun control since the Gun Control Act was passed in 1968 in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In particular, the assault weapons ban may prove the biggest stumbling block in his negotiations with the GOP. But the Washington Post poll found that Obama has the greater stock of political capital: his approval rating is at 55 per cent, compared to 24 per cent for Congressional Republicans. And 67 per cent think Republican leaders should do more to compromise with Obama, whereas just 48 per cent think Obama should do more to compromise with them. But Obama will be expending that capital on three fronts in the coming weeks: getting Chuck Hagel confirmed as Defense Secretary, raising the debt ceiling and now improving gun control.

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