If the President had the air of a man dusting off a long-closed folder marked “Standard Democratic proposals for gun control” then, well, that’s because that’s pretty much what he was doing. Perhaps there was a sheepish air to his performance too, the look of a man who would have liked to do this long ago but lacked the opportunity – or desire – to risk venturing into this field.
Nevertheless, none of the gun-measures Obama announced yesterday would have prevented Adam Lanza’s shooting spree in Newtown, Connecticut. We should be wary of supposing they will prevent future mass killings too. This is not an area in which Presidential “leadership” can realistically achieve much.
Which is not so say that strengthening background checks and making it harder to purchase guns on behalf of someone else are bad ideas. They are not. But many of the other measures are, for better or worse, largely cosmetic exercises. Limiting the size of magazine clips is a well-intentioned measure but not one that will make much of an impact. Nor, frankly, would a new ban on assault weapons.
Doubtless this is regrettable. Horrific, even. Nevertheless the fact remains that the vast majority of American gun deaths are caused by handguns and three in four Americans still support the right to own handguns. That is, they oppose any ban on handguns – the only measure that could, in the longer-term, drastically reduce the prevalence of American gun violence.
Some of the reaction to recent events has been oddly naive. The Economist, for instance, writes:
Most shockingly, gun sales have soared in recent weeks. In the month since the Newtown shooting 250,000 more people have joined the National Rifle Association, which has vowed to oppose the ban.
If this is shocking, it is not surprising. Nor is it illogical. If, as these sprees make clear, the wrong people have guns it is not automatically or inherently stupid for law-abiding, sane, citizens to think that their own safety will be enhanced by owning a gun themselves. At an individual level this makes a certain kind of sense and it does so even if you think this a depressing development or if you believe, not unreasonably, that increasing the number of guns in circulation is liable to lead to more small-scale acts of violence.
Gallup surmises that increasing opposition to a handgun ban in the wake of Sandy Hook “possibly [reflects] Americans’ desire to defend themselves given the rash of high-profile gun violence”. I should say so. If your city is gridded with heavily-subsidised roads, streets and sidewalks are dangerous for cyclists, and public transportation is perfectly lousy, what do you do? You get a car, even if it actively contributes to the regrettable status quo. There are deranged people out there, and millions upon millions of guns. So you go to McDonald’s with a gun in your coat, if you can.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe”, Mr Obama said today. “But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it”.
So he is. The measures Obama has announced are chiefly of symbolic value. That’s important, not least because it would have been impossible, in the aftermath of this kind of horror, for the President to do nothing at all. But there is a limit to what symbolic measures can realistically be expected to achieve.
All this is, of course, pretty depressing. But unless the culture changes we should not expect there to be any great decrease in American gun violence. It’s true that the culture can change – as recently as the 1950s a majority of Americans favoured* a ban on handguns – but I’m not sure it’s possible to stigmatise gun ownership to the kind of degree that might be needed to make a sharp and lasting difference to American gun culture.
*What changed? Well, the 1960s and 1970s and the crime epidemic had, I suspect, a lot to do with it.