Action, or simply more US rhetoric?

Massacre: A woman places flowers near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
Massacre: A woman places flowers near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

When United States President Barack Obama was elected four years ago there was a rush to buy guns as enthusiasts anticipated a ban on assault weapons.

Instead, there has been a liberalisation of gun laws across America, with measures to allow firearms in bars from Virginia to New Mexico and the right to carry concealed firearms in colleges and schools in Texas and Utah. The US Supreme Court overturned a ban on handguns in Washington, DC.

Despite at least six mass shootings since he took office, Obama has not made gun control a priority and it was not an issue in last month's election.

The Newtown massacre may have changed this. The country seemed stunned as it watched the grief of parents who had just been told of the deaths of their children.

Often criticised for his lack of emotion, Obama, a father of two daughters, seemed barely able to speak and wiped away tears as he made his four-minute statement.

He said the country had "endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years" and called for "meaningful action" to prevent more.

"We have been through this too many times, whether it's an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theatre in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago," he said, referring to mass shootings in the past year.

He repeated his call for "meaningful action" in his weekly address yesterday, which he devoted entirely to the shooting.

The call for action appeared to mark a political shift for Obama, who has been reluctant to confront the issue in a country where many are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to bear arms.

There have been calls for the introduction of stringent legal restrictions, such as those introduced in Australia after a killing spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania, left 35 dead in 1996.

Semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns were banned outright.

But the National Rifle Association, one of America's most powerful lobby groups, succeeded in 2004 in persuading Congress to allow a ban on assault rifles, which was introduced by the Clinton administration, to expire.

Gun ownership is widespread. More than 47 per cent of Americans told a Gallup poll last year that they had at least one gun at home and only 26 per cent favoured a ban on handguns.

For Republicans, the right to bear arms is seen as a fundamental right and candidates frequently boast of their shooting prowess.

During his bid for the presidency in 2008, Mitt Romney talked of shooting "small varmints"; his deputy this year, Paul Ryan, is a committed hunter.

In a presidential debate in October, Obama was asked what his administration had "done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons". "We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment," he replied.

"What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally," he said.

The deaths of 20 small children on Friday may at last force the nation to rethink.

"What kind of mass murder do you need out there before we say enough is enough," asked Carolyn McCarthy, a congresswoman from New York whose husband was killed in a shooting in 1993. "I've been crying all day.

"The American people need to say to their politicians: do something."

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, said: "Calling for meaningful action is not enough. We need immediate action.

"We have heard all the rhetoric before.

"What we have not seen is leadership, not from the White House and not from Congress."

Also calling for action was retired astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in Arizona almost two years ago.

"This time our response must consist of more than regret, sorrow and condolence," he said. "This can no longer wait."

Many suspect nothing will change. While all Americans were horrified, many will argue that the answer is not to ban guns but to allow more so that people can protect themselves.

On the day of the killings, Michigan passed a law to allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools, churches, sports stadiums, hospitals, bars and college campuses.

Others argue there should be more focus on mental health. Mary Bono Mack, a Republican congresswoman, said: "This guy is seriously snapped. Guns didn't make him snap."

Britain's Sunday Times