On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Peter Lanza fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, he had shot and killed his mother, Nancy, at their Newtown home. After shooting the pupils, all of them aged six or seven, and staff members, he committed suicide. The Newtown Shooting, as it has been dubbed by the press, was the second deadliest school shooting in the history of the United States.
Three days later, an eleven-year-old boy living in Utah took an unloaded handgun with him to school on a Monday morning. He told his teachers and classmates that he wanted it in case he had to protect himself against a similar attack occurring in his school. He also emphasized how easy he, just eleven years old, had found it to obtain a handgun. This pronounced political statement earned him a detainment on weapons charges.
The point which would be made by many in these parallels is, undoubtedly, accessibility. Lanza, as well as the eleven-year-old in Utah, had no troubles in accessing the weapons, nor did they encounter any obstacles in their use. Admittedly, the boy in Utah did not fire his handgun. It was unloaded, and was used to send a message rather than to cause harm. But nevertheless, the point he was making is a relevant one. The tragic fate of the Newtown elementary pupils has yet again resparked the gun control debate- one of the most contentious and divisive issues in American politics. But why should something so harrowing even be contested at all? Surely the mere fact that a child was able to walk into school armed is reason enough to justify some kind of change in the status quo?
It would seem not. Questions of gun control in the US are not as simple as this. Indeed, if President Obama had tried to take action to tighten controls on the circulations of handguns just a few days ago he would have been met with major backlash from many Congress members, gun owners and many powerful political and business figures. But the events at Newtown have, for the time being, left the gun lobby relatively subdued. The White House recently came out in support of a draft bill to ban assault weapons of the type used in the school shootings. The President told international media in a press conference that “it won’t be easy, but that can’t be an excuse not to try”. This may well be accurate.
Putting in place further gun control measures will be no easy feat. The right to own a gun in the US is considered a fundamental right which should be at the liberty of each and every American in order to defend themselves and their family. Furthermore, it is protected by the right to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (in the Bill of Rights). Because this right has been upheld by the Supreme Court since it was numerated in 1791, it can’t be qualified in the flick of a switch- indeed, the US Constitution has been amended just 27 times since it was adopted in 1787. The Constitution and all of its provisions, including the right to bear arms, are entrenched in law. In order for any constitutional amendment to be passed, a two-thirds majority in votes in both houses of Congress are needed. So practically speaking, it will be tricky for Obama to make much progress in this respect.
But the right to bear arms is not only politically entrenched; it is culturally entrenched. The Constitution is a fundamental part of American history and political culture. It is a document which first asserted what it meant to be an American citizen. It’s something that Americans, broadly speaking, are proud of, and is the basis for widespread patriotic beliefs. The importance that US citizens attach to the Constitution is one of the arguments of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most formidable lobbying groups in Washington. Outspoken opponents of gun control, the organization has over 4.3 million members and refers to itself as the oldest civil rights group in America. But following on from the Newtown shootings, their website and twitter page was uncharacteristically quiet. Could this be the event which silences one of the loudest voices in American politics?
This could potentially go either way. One the one hand, America has seen its fair share of fatal shootings in recent years. Take the Aurora Shooting of July this year, for example. A disguised gunman opened fire in a cinema in Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing twelve people and injuring fifty-eight others. Or look at the Virginia Tech Massacre; thirty-two students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute were killed and seventeen others wounded after a mentally unstable student opened fire. This is the deadliest shooting incident caused by a single gunman to date in the US. After both of these tragedies, the gun control debate flared up again- but as we can see, nothing resulted from either of them. It is argued that the Newtown Shooting had a particular poignancy since many of those killed were young children. But when vested interests and ideological clashes come in to play, will this one be any different from the others? For advocates of stricter gun control, the eleven-year-old boy from Utah and the families of those who have lost their loved ones in one of the many fatal shootings that have occurred throughout US history, one can only hope that the events in Newtown are the tip of the gun control iceberg.