In the wake of the Florida school shooting, expect more controls – but only on what you say, your guns are safe

Robert Delaney says the latest school shooting in the US will only spark more surveillance by government agencies of what people say online, instead of stricter gun control

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 12:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 8:56am

As the US news media scrambled to uncover details of the killer and the victims in last week’s school shooting, one headline stood out from the usual follow-up coverage.

“Veteran congressman can still remember when inaction on gun violence actually presented a moral dilemma,” the spoof-news website The Onion reported.

It might seem callous to use humour to address a tragedy in which 17 people lost their lives, but the foundational principles of the United States ensure that, with the exception of thoughts and prayers, Americans distraught about the carnage guns inflict on its citizens do not have much else.

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In the days after the shooting, House speaker Paul Ryan said lawmakers “probably have to do a better job” making sure mentally ill Americans don’t have access to guns.The word “probably” is key. It’s a signal that no laws will be passed that would restrict the availability of firearms. The lawmakers will not do the “better job” that Ryan speaks of, and until the horror of last week disappears from the news cycle, they will spew the usual thoughts and prayers and stick with inaction on guns. 

Anyone wondering how this can be needs to know that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – the actual wording of the US Constitution’s second amendment – resonates deeply in a country that threw off colonial exploitation and gained independence through gun barrels.

Guns then helped the new nation spread west to the Pacific Ocean (subduing and decimating entire civilisations along the way, but that’s a whole other debate).

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While novel ideas about equality and governance derived from the Enlightenment established the template for America, unfettered access to firearms helped make the project happen.

Throughout this history and until the present day, many Americans feel strongly that they need guns as a measure of protection against anyone, be they lawmakers, bureaucrats or trespassers, who might seek to infringe on their rights.

So American lawmakers trying to restrict that access in the wake of the latest gun massacre have a difficult hill to climb.

Instead of any indication that there will be a serious legislative effort to keep guns away from mentally disturbed people, attention has focused on the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation missed clues that the accused gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was about to unleash his fury.

“I’m going to be a professional school gunman.” That was the comment left on a YouTube video last year under the name Nikolas Cruz. This, together with violent and disturbing social media posts by the accused, should have prompted law enforcement to close in on him sooner, many pundits have declared.

Many Americans feel strongly that they need guns as a measure of protection against anyone

Given this response so far, and the likely inaction on gun control, efforts to protect schools and communities from gun violence will probably turn to more surveillance of what Americans say or post online.

And this is where the course of action by the government may become very ironic.

We all sometimes make dramatic statements for effect. How often have we said we wanted to “kill” someone or something that has enraged us? How often have we followed through?

Everyone will need to think twice about using any language that can be construed as a credible threat.

So the inaction we can expect from lawmakers on keeping guns away from the mentally unstable will lead to greater restrictions on what the rest of the country’s citizens can say.

Just the sort of thing that gun rights supporters would be up in arms about.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York