How many deaths will it take before US passes gun laws?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 7:38am

American politicians are generally as sensitive as any to public sentiment. So what does it take to persuade most of them to fall in step with polls that show broad public support for tougher gun laws? With due respect to the 12 victims, it seems unlikely that the latest shooting outrage in the Washington Navy Yard will make a difference. If the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school last December were not enough to stiffen their spines against political threats from the gun-owners' lobby, it is hard to know what would be.

The latest tragedy has reignited the gun-control debate. Though this may again be futile, it prompts the question whether measures proposed earlier this year would have made any difference. They would have controlled automatic assault weapons - one of the guns used in the latest massacre - and online sales, and expanded background checks to stop the sale of guns to criminals and the mentally ill.

There was one positive in the background of gunman Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old IT employee of a defence contractor who was killed in a gun battle with police. He was a convert to Buddhism, which teaches peace, love, kindness and wisdom. But there were also contacts with law enforcement over shooting incidents, police references to anger management issues, and treatment for mental issues after service as an electrician's mate in the navy reserve.

If President Barack Obama had succeeded in getting gun control legislation passed, a background like that might have warranted closer scrutiny before the sale of weapons.

Had atrocities like those in Washington and Connecticut been committed against Americans on foreign soil, outrage would have outweighed the right to bear arms. Perhaps this is an opportunity to narrow the double standards. Last April a majority in the US Senate supported expanded background checks, but not the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles for further progress. It may be worth another try.