Barack Obama

Why Obama's drive for gun reforms never stood a chance

Political anxiety, Republican resistance and the clout of NRA crushes drive for tougher controls

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 2:57am

US President Barack Obama, his face set with rage, stood with families from Newtown and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords and asked how a measure to expand background checks for gun buyers - one supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans and a bipartisan majority of the Senate - had slipped away.

He asked: "The American people are trying to figure out, how can something have 90 per cent support and yet not happen?"

The answer: the measure never really had a chance.

In the nearly 10 years since the expiration of the assault weapons ban, even modest gun safety legislation has proved impossible to advance on Capitol Hill, where the momentum has been in the other direction with lawmakers pushing various expansions of gun rights.

Former politician Giffords suffered head wounds in a shooting near Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011. The shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, last year, the tearful pleas of the parents of slain children and an aggressive push by the president could not turn the tide.

The level of emotion over the issue was evident on Wednesday when three startling words rang out in the US Senate: "Shame on you!"

Patricia Maisch, a survivor of the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and severely wounded a US lawmaker, was ejected from the chamber, but not before putting into words the emotions felt by many in the Capitol.

"They have no souls, they have no compassion for the experiences that people have lived through [with] gun violence, who have had a child or a loved one murdered by a gun," Maisch told reporters.

The Senate voted 54-46 in favour, but that was well short of the 60-vote supermajority now commonly needed to advance most legislation.

The push for greater control was no match for the reason Democrats have avoided gun control fights for years: a combination of the political anxiety of vulnerable Democrats from conservative states, deep-seated Republican resistance and the enduring clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

After the vote for the assault weapons ban cost Democrats seats in 1994, Democrats in states where residents predominantly vote for the Republican Party have steered clear of gun safety measures.

As for the NRA, while some saw the group's leader, Wayne LaPierre, as meandering after the Connecticut school shootings in December, seasoned lawmakers heard something far more telling: the group, which once supported new background checks, would no longer accept them. As a result, before a single hearing, bill or speech on the Senate floor, the legislation was in grave trouble.

The Senate's rapid dismissal of what just weeks ago seemed the most achievable goal - a measure to extend background checks to gun buyers not currently covered by the federal system - sent the question of how and if to regulate firearms back to the states, where new laws both to restrain and expand gun rights are now fermenting.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse