Tears in vain: shooting fails to sway US

NICK O'MALLEY
Last updated 16:41 21/09/2013
Gun victims

PLEA: Siblings of Victoria Soto, who was killed in Newtown, address the rally.

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On Wednesday, just two days after a gunman killed 12 people and himself in the Washington Navy Yard, a group of shattered family members gathered on a dais in a packed media room in the Capitol building, two kilometres from Monday's killing spree.

These were the relatives of those killed at earlier shootings, on the Hill as part of a pre-arranged lobbying effort.

One was Carlos Soto, whose older sister Victoria was shot dead as she tried to protect her primary school class in Newtown, Connecticut. He told reporters he did not want other 15-year-olds to have to pick out coffins for family members.

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was one of 12 murdered in a cinema in Colorado, said: ''There is such a sting as righteous anger and we have heard it here today; it is justified when our leaders do nothing.''

And there was Shendra Robinson, whose 15-year-old son Deon was shot dead as he stood on his grandmother's porch in Chicago. She indeed sounded angry when it was her turn to speak. ''Everyone is talking about their Second Amendment right,'' she said, referring to America's right to keep and bear arms. ''What about our children? What about their right to live?''

But around the building, the political sums had already been done, and though the dead from the most recent shooting were yet to be buried, nobody saw any immediate prospects for gun control.

The tone of the comments made after Monday's killings was entirely different to that heard in the wake of the murder of Newtown's children. In the grief after those killings, many called for tighter gun laws and those who disagreed kept their counsel, at least for a time. That has not been the response this week. On Tuesday, Texan Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert said: ''Blaming this on guns is like saying the big problem with obesity is we've got too many spoons. It's not the spoons, it's not the guns. It's the people who have them.''

Asked if the navy yard shooting had changed anything, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a champion of gun control, said: ''I'm not optimistic right now.'' Asked if she would call on the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to reintroduce a bill to increase background checks that failed earlier in the year, she said: ''I'm not going to tell him he should, because I don't want another loss.''

One of the strategists behind that bill was Matt Bennett, a former White House aide and co-founder of the progressive think tank Third Way. He said this week that if the deaths of 20 primary school children did not provide enough impetus for change, then it was clear the murder of these 12 people would not either.

He said if the bill that failed earlier in the year were put up again it would gain exactly the same number of votes in the Senate it had last time - 55 out of 100 - enough to pass in a normal Senate but not since the Republicans had automatically started using the filibuster to block legislation they did not like.

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This is not to say that gun control advocates have given up, just that they now accept that hopes of a quick victory after Sandy Hook have faded and they are now involved in a long campaign.

''This could take many years,'' Bennett said, noting that the last time a significant gun control bill was passed was in 1994.

The movement is gathering steam too. Since the Newtown massacre the billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has thrown his weight - and that of his wallet - into the fight, while existing groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, have redoubled their lobbying and fund-raising efforts. (This week it fired off an email blast to supporters using the navy yard shooting as leverage to call for donations.)

Two lobby groups have sprung out of Newtown itself: Sandy Hook Promise (advised by Bennett) and the Newtown Action Alliance, which organised Wednesday's Capitol Hill press conference.

Congressional staff have noted the parents of children slain at Sandy Hook have a moral authority unequalled in the Capitol's corridors. They are among the few people who can almost guarantee a meeting with a member of Congress personally, rather than one with a staff member. Though they have not succeeded in changing federal laws, their lobbying has contributed to gun control victories in some states, including in their home state.

But this does not look like a nation about to embrace gun control. On Thursday, Starbucks found itself at the centre of controversy for requesting that its customers do not carry guns in its outlets. It would not actually ban the guns.

Bennett said gun control advocates are now grimly aware that mass shootings will occur in the US every couple of months, but that most will not provoke change. Instead, they are waiting for the right sort of mass killing to shake people and spark motivation for change. Perhaps, he said, an act of terrorism would do it.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association is flush with so much success it is running out of targets.

In the most recent edition of America's 1st Freedom, the NRA magazine whose market is not sporting shooters but Second Amendment advocates, is focused squarely on a United Nations small-arms treaty rather than local issues.

''The tyrants and dictators at the United Nations will stop at nothing to ban and, eventually, confiscate firearms owned by law-abiding Americans, you, me,'' begins the editorial by executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre.

Having silenced Congress and seen Colorado Democrats removed from office before their terms had even expired for daring to support gun control bills, the NRA's targets are becoming more prosaic. In some states they are backing laws that would see guns allowed in churches, schools and bars. In North Carolina, an NRA-backed bill banning the destruction of firearms confiscated by police or obtained in gun buy-backs has just passed. Now, the guns must be kept or resold.

Bennett suggests it appears the organisation might even be getting bored. ''They have this giant machine and nothing to point it at,'' he said of the NRA.

Shendra Robinson has not given in. ''I am begging you,'' she said, directly appealing to members of Congress. ''Get these pencils and pens in your hands and sign these bills. It's just a signature away. Who else has to die before you get it?''


- Sydney Morning Herald

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