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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany

American Instinct

By Thomas Gutschker

Violent incidents and the media reports that accompany them result in an instinctual response among Americans — the feeling that when the chips are down, you cannot count on the government for protection.

Translated By Ron Argentati

15 December 2012

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - Original Article (German)

The argument over gun control in the U.S. breaks out in the wake of every shooting massacre, but the reality is that the laws only get more lax. Before his re-election, Obama did not dare propose stronger gun control laws. But the time has come.

President Obama struggled for composure when he publicly addressed the deadly shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday evening. “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” he said, referring to previous traumatic cases. Last July, there was a bloodbath in Aurora, Colorado in which 12 people died and 58 were wounded. Shortly thereafter, a right-wing radical stormed a Sikh temple in Milwaukee and shot six people to death.

As recently as Wednesday, a gunman shot two people to death in an Oregon shopping mall. Obama also referred to the carnage that happens regularly on the streets of Chicago, his hometown, which experiences above average violence. Then he added something significant: “And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Obama did not say he wanted stricter gun laws. It was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has long championed more gun control, who said that. He said it is time for the White House to cease with rhetoric and show leadership. But Obama's words alone were enough to elicit a Pavlovian response from Republicans who claim there is no need for stronger gun laws. Thus the stage has already been set for future battles.

Ninety Guns for Every 100 Americans

After the Aurora massacre five months ago, Obama's comments contained nothing of political consequence. A few days after the shootings, he remarked that the shooter had used an assault rifle that he said belongs “on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.” He went on to say he wanted "to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction" and to "loo[k] at everything we can do to … keep our children safe." At the same time, he acknowledged that the right to keep and bear arms was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and that in the U.S. there was a long “tradition[n] of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation.”

Those were the words of a man seeking re-election. A Democrat in America can only do so if he wins over the voter for whom the pistol in his nightstand is as necessary as a beer in his fridge. That is the paradox of this nation and its citizens: Although the number of crimes involving guns steadily rises and despite the fact that a horrible shooting massacre occurs with predictable regularity, the vigilante ethos refuses to disappear. In fact, it appears to be on the increase.

There are currently 90 guns for every 100 Americans — no other country in the world even approaches that statistic. Each year, 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds and another 70,000 are wounded. It sounds like a report from the battlefield. And yet the number of citizens demanding stricter gun laws is actually decreasing. A good 50 percent of the population stands in opposition to a ban on assault rifles and only 25 percent favor outlawing handguns.

There is a cause and effect relationship between demand for guns and massacres in schools and universities, and the connection is disturbing, at least to Europeans. Violent incidents and the media reports that accompany them result in an instinctual response among Americans — the feeling that when the chips are down, you cannot count on the government for protection. It is every man for himself. That was the case for the early settlers who opened the frontier and drove out the Indians. They were their own first responders before there were soldiers or police to render assistance.

It was this that resulted in the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The meaning of this for modern times has been debated for decades. With the disbanding of the militias, did not an individual's right to bear arms also disappear? That is how proponents of stronger gun regulation see it. One 1975 law actually outlawed possession of handguns. Exceptions were made for guns owned prior to 1975 or those owned by law enforcement personnel. All other guns had to be kept unloaded and disassembled or at least otherwise secured. The law affected only Washington, D.C., but opponents nonetheless spared no effort in getting the law revoked. An appellate court upheld the law and the issue eventually landed before the Supreme Court, where all its key provisions were deemed unconstitutional.

This was a huge success for the gun lobby and the beginning of numerous initiatives — both federal and state — to loosen gun laws further. In Virginia, citizens who frequent bars and restaurants serving alcohol have again been permitted to carry concealed weapons for over two years, a privilege previously granted only to law enforcement personnel. In addition, citizens may again purchase more than one firearm per month — that’s right, per month, not per year. This is now permissible under a law passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, where a shooter gunned down 32 people in 2007.

After the massacre, there were initiatives proposing that students be allowed to carry guns on campus in more than 20 states. They were successful in Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi. At the same time, weapons proponents in Indiana passed a law permitting employees to keep guns in their cars when they were parked on company property. President Obama signed two bills into law in 2009 that loosened gun ownership. One permits citizens to possess loaded guns in national parks — there is a danger of being attacked by wild animals — and the other allows Amtrak passengers to have loaded firearms in their luggage, in case travelers need to protect themselves while away from home.

Curbing the Instinct

During the campaign, candidate Obama promised he would seek to have assault weapons banned. Assault weapons are fully automatic or semi-automatic weapons intended exclusively for military purposes, such as the AK-47. These were banned under President Clinton's administration, but only for 10 years and now there is no apparent majority to reinstate the ban. There are approximately 4 million such weapons currently in the U.S.

Obama's promise to ban assault weapons by itself was sufficient to assure gun shops a super Christmas shopping season. After his election, gun sales went through the roof and attendance at gun shows hit an all-time high. The number of FBI background checks — Americans who wish to buy a gun must prove that they do not have a criminal record — rose by 500,000. The National Rifle Association, more than 4 million strong, pumped up gun sales with an anti-Obama campaign.

Now since his reelection, Obama no longer has to worry about running for office again. The National Rifle Association has weakened somewhat because they were less successful in getting sympathetic congressional candidates elected than previously. There are many good reasons for Obama to take heart during his second term and push for stricter gun control laws. But he will only be successful in that endeavor insofar as he is able to curb the people's instinct to become vigilantes. That is something that might prove difficult in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.



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