x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

US gun debate drags on as resignation sets in

Despite the rising number of shooting sprees, there is an air of resignation among the public.

A man prays at a memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut following Friday’s shooting.
A man prays at a memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut following Friday’s shooting.

HAPPY VALLEY, Oregon // At the mall's food court in Clackamas Town Centre yesterday morning there was no sign that, just a week ago, a masked gunman had opened fire on shoppers with an assault rifle in this exact spot, killing two people.

As workers prepared for the shopping rush, to the sound of piped-in holiday music, a group of women jogged past the shuttered Macy's and Made-in-Oregon stores where just days earlier, terrified employees and shoppers had hidden to avoid the spray of bullets.

There are no memorials to the dead, or even any visible bullet holes.

"We've become callous as a nation," said Jen, who provided only her first name, as she walked to work at a nearby clothing store.

"Random shootings might be happening more but people feel like if a deranged person wants to hurt others, there's nothing that they can do about it."

Jen hid behind the counter of her store last Tuesday when 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts began shooting. On Friday, she was dropping her seven-year-old daughter off at her school when she heard that a gunman had massacred 20 children in Connecticut. She couldn't believe it was happening again. "I felt sick. I broke down," she said. "I almost didn't let my daughter go to school."

There have been at least 13 mass shootings in the United States this year, but the cycle has become normalised: outrage and demands for gun control quickly dissipate into resignation and then preoccupation with more immediate concerns, such as the economy, which retake the national discourse.

And then, always, more shootings.

In his address to the country during the weekend, Barack Obama, the US president, said "meaningful action" must be taken to avoid such tragedies in the future. He did not, however, specify what this would entail, nor did he mention guns at all.

The problem is the "conspicuous asymmetry of fervour" around the issue, as the New Yorker magazine put it yesterday.

Pro-gun organisations, who work on the issue year-round, have vastly outspent gun-control advocates, who do not have an organised base of supporters, on lobbying at the federal and state levels.

It has become politically toxic for politicians to take on the gun lobby.

One who has is New York's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said during a television interview on Sunday that if Mr Obama does not make gun control an issue in his second term, "something like 48,000 Americans will be killed".

"Nobody questions the second amendment's right to bear arms," he said. "But we don't think the founding fathers had the idea that every man, woman and child could carry an assault weapon.

"And I think the president, through his leadership, could get a bill like that through Congress. But at least he's got to try. That's his job."

But gun-control supporters in Congress have dwindled in numbers over the years and it seems unlikely that many Republican politicians will support any legislation that limits gun ownership.

After Newtown and the other high-profile shootings this year, gun-control advocates such as Mr Bloomberg hope that the president can build enough public support to make intransigence on new gun laws politically risky for lawmakers.

Yesterday, two US legislators called for a national commission to examine mass shootings, while a third vowed to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons.

The time for "saying that we can't talk about the policy implications of tragedies like this is over," said Representative Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who won a Senate seat in the November elections.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator in California, said she planned to create a national committee devoted to rallying support for a ban on the sale of new assault weapons and will propose legislation next year that would ban big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who is retiring, said there should be a national commission to scrutinise gun laws and loopholes.

But history shows that their hope in people's continuing outrage may be misplaced.

Criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University said that society moves on because of our ability to distance ourselves from the horror of the day, and because people believe that these tragedies are "one of the unfortunate prices we pay for our freedoms".

Back at the Clackamas Town Centre, Jen said that she does not support stricter gun laws because the problem of mass shootings in America is "much deeper than that".

"I don't know how you fix it, but at some level this country is damaged," she said.

Even when the nation's attention has moved on, Jen says that the terror she experienced while hiding and praying that the mall shooter would not come into her store had changed her forever.

"It made me think about what people in Syria have to go through on a daily basis," she said. "This experience has made me feel closer to the world, and made me more determined to reach out in love and understanding to everybody."


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press