US gun culture the biggest hurdle to a law that would save lives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 9:31am

School shootings in the US have become so commonplace that they are more ignored than remarked upon. President Barack Obama would have said nothing about the latest in Oregon last Tuesday that left a student dead and a teacher injured had he not been asked about it during a question-and-answer session on Tumblr. Briefly, he diverted from the topic at hand, student loan debt, to voice his frustration that American society was unwilling to "take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do damage". In the 18 months since lawmakers refused to take on the powerful National Rifle Association in the wake of the killing by a lone gunman of 26 children and teachers at a school in Connecticut, there have been 74 such tragedies, an average of one a week.

Obama is a steadfast advocate of gun control. The law that he spearheaded that was voted down by Congress would have expanded background checks for gun purchases to cover on-line sales and gun shows. Measures that would have banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines also faltered. There had been no better chance in a decade for reform and the president criticised lawmakers for cowering to the gun lobby.

But even if such legislation had been in place, it would not have made any difference with the Oregon shooting or the Connecticut massacre, the deadliest ever at a US school. In both cases, weapons had been stolen from parents to commit the crimes. A shooting last month at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which six people died, would similarly not have been affected. The assailant, a college student, had passed background checks to obtain his weapon.

The problem is the US weapon culture, protected by a Supreme Court ruling on individual ownership of guns. The country's 218 million people over the age of 18 have 300 million guns. Some states have enacted laws tightening controls, but others have not, making national legislation difficult. There will be no change until the lives of children are perceived as more important than the right to bear arms.