"Never Again" is what we say after a gunman shoots and kills dozens in a theater, a school, a shopping mall, a health clinic or a church. We promise to do better. We promise to take action, to prevent those who would kill to carry out their evil plans. President Barack Obama pleads with the American public to support stricter gun laws, while many gun owners assert their constitutional right to bear arms. The National Rifle Association declares, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Though we say "never again" we see the same story night after night. Inevitably the shooter is armed with a semiautomatic weapon purchased legally, and has slipped past the red flags that would prevent those who are mentally ill, tied to terrorist organizations or hate groups from owning firearms. How can it be possible that gun ownership is free from the regulations we place on driving a car, flying in a plane, or entering the country?
Stymied by Republicans and pro-gun supporters, Obama took executive action to tighten restrictions on gun sales. The president reportedly asked his staff to prepare a proposal that would expand background checks on gun sales without congressional approval. On January 4, Obama signed an order directing the Defense Department, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to "increase research and development efforts" toward reducing gun violence.
Without congressional support, however, there is little that the president can legally do. Without widespread public support to limit guns, we are doomed to repeat the past. For all of Obama's strong statements, his action amounted to little more than "an updated web page and 10,000 pamphlets that federal agents will give out at gun shows," reports the New York Times .
"The actions the president announced last month represent the maximum the administration can do under the current law," said Eric Schultz, the deputy White House press secretary, "namely increasing mental health treatment and reporting, improving public safety, managing the future of gun safety technology and, of course, enhancing the background check system."
A week before a massacre killed 14 last December in San Bernardino, California, House Republicans blocked debate on the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act. Opponents said the bill, which would bar gun sales to those on the government's "no-fly list"; say the real problem is in identifying those with mental illness. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 suspects on the FBI's Terrorist Watchlist bout weapons legally in the U.S. over the past 11 years, according to the federal Government Accountability Office.
As Republican presidential candidates gathered to debate this week on their vision for the future of the country, gun control was not addressed. Over all the discussion of terrorism and war, not one candidate mentioned that nearly 300 people in America are shot every day, and that there have been 22 mass shootings in 2015 in which four or more victims were killed--just slightly above average for the past 15 years.
"We can't let it become normal. If we truly care about this--if we're going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience--then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them," Obama said in a statement.
There is no other industrialized country in the world in which gun violence happens as frequently as the United States. Why? Why are guns so important to the American people? Nearly three in four Americans think mass shootings and other acts of violence have become a fixture of American life, according to a recent poll by the Wall Street Journal . Nearly one-third worry they or someone they love will be the victim of gun violence and 29 percent fear they will be victim of a terrorist attack.
Even as Americans worry they will be victim to gun violence, gun ownership rates here are unparalleled. There are 270 million privately held firearms in the U.S., and we have the highest rate of gun ownership per capita in the world. The second highest gun ownership rate is Yemen, but Americans have nearly twice as many guns per person as Yemenis, according to the Washington Post . America's gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world.
For supporters of gun ownership, firearms represent freedom. The constitutional right to bear arms is prized as a right for individual defense--against those who would do you harm and against a government who could become corrupt. Guns are an insurance policy; a check against the military might of the government.
What guns have become, in the modern era, is a trap. Resistance against even common-sense gun laws has encouraged an atmosphere of fear, with citizens arming themselves against the very liberties they prize. If guns are a potential threat in the hands of one person they are a potential threat in the hands of all people, and conservatives need to decide if the right to bear arms is worth the increased threat of gun violence that goes with it.
(Reporting from New York )
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review