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Le Monde, France

The Newtown Massacre: Firearms
and American Identity

By Sylvie Kauffmann

On the question of firearms as on many others, George Bush the father and son, the 41st and the 43rd presidents of the United States, symbolize two conflicting Americas.

Translated By Michelle Boone

17 December 2012

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)

One beautiful day in 1995, George H. W. Bush, in an act of profound indignation, turned in his National Rifle Association membership card to the powerful firearms lobbying group, and let it be known that he had done so. An anti-government extremist, Timothy McVeigh, had just blown up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 167 people. America, in shock, discovered the existence of domestic militias consisting of paranoid “patriots” obsessed with the idea that the American government was looking for ways to seize their firearms.

Several days before the bombing, the National Rifle Association had the poor taste to send a newsletter to its 3.4 million members in which federal law enforcement agents were equated to “Nazis.” This letter, explained George Bush, “deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor.” Cut to the quick, the National Rifle Association had to buy entire pages of advertisements in newspapers to respond to the ex-President, George Bush.

George Bush the father, of course. The son did not have the same “decency.” On the question of firearms as on many others, George Bush the father and son, the 41st and the 43rd presidents of the United States, symbolize two conflicting Americas. In the eternal American debate on firearms, the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, has tragically revived the America that George Bush the father was largely losing to George Bush the son, up until December 14 that is.

The security revolution that swept the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, coupled with two terms of George W. Bush from 2000 to 2008, reversed the dynamic on gun control and forced a real regression in this very particular dimension of the American identity and incomprehensible to the rest of the world.

President Bill Clinton became the champion of “gun control,” an expression that, in politics, means efforts aimed at restricting access to firearms. In the U.S., a ban is out of the question: the Second Amendment of the Constitution grants the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.” As such, opponents of firearms can only work on the fringes. Restrictions to this right would be more or less extensive considering the power struggle between supporters and opponents of gun control in Congress and on the Supreme Court as well as the evolution of American society.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and many other elected officials, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, tipped the scales in favor of increased control. The Brady Act, signed into law in 1993, required that all those purchasing a firearm undergo a background check. It was promoted by a colleague of President Reagan, Jim Brady, who was seriously injured by a bullet to the head during the attempted assassination of the former president in 1981.

Then in 1994, the vote on a bill banning 19 different models of semi-automatic assault rifles, for which President Clinton fought like a lion, was considered a harsh blow to the National Rifle Association. Tired of inner city crime and the funerals of adolescents gunned down younger and younger by weapons that were increasingly rapid, public opinion forced the movement forward. Two social issues, the death penalty and firearms, deeply separated Europe and the United States; as for the latter, the American creed seemed scratched at the very least.

However, the law prohibiting assault rifles was only in effect for 10 years. In 2004, the mood had changed, and the president and Congress did not consider it useful enough to renew. After eight years of Republican control, a Democrat, Barack Obama, took back the White House in 2008, but he never showed the same enthusiasm as Bill Clinton on the question of firearms. His first reaction to the massacre at Newtown on Friday night was moving yet apprehensive. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, had a field day criticizing him for his lack of leadership on the issue. It was only Sunday that the president, aware of the increase of emotion, adopted a more resolute tone.

Meanwhile, the number of National Rifle Association members has gone from 3.4 million in 1994 to 4.3 million today. Mass shootings have sadly become a category that is indicative of criminality in the United States, followed by periods of ceremonial mourning that are quickly forgotten. The expression “gun control,” explains data analyst Nate Silver in his blog “FiveThirtyEight,” has been less and less mentioned in public discourse over the last 10 years in favor of expressions like “gun rights” (rights of those who carry firearms) and “the Second Amendment,” smooth rhetoric that confirms the change in opinion. As for the latter, the gap with Europe has once again become wide. In a larger security context, this evolution has accompanied the militarization of the fight against terrorism, supported by George W. Bush; under Obama, the CIA was put in charge of managing the military drone program. Several days ago, The Wall Street Journal reported on a new private data surveillance program of American citizens in the name of the fight against terrorism without provoking any particular uproar.

Finally, some good news: The Newtown massacre has persuaded Senator Dianne Feinstein to propose a law prohibiting assault rifles. Does this remind you of something? Yes, the text that Bill Clinton forced from Congress in 1994. America has been set back twenty years, but it has yet to end in the Bush years.



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