Gun control and America’s resistance to change

I was having a nice social media conversation with somebody considerably smarter than me, though measurably less American, about American resistance to change particularly where gun control is concerned.  It can be a trying conversation at times, and this person isn’t the only one I’ve had this conversation with the last three days.  Obviously this is something on the minds of a lot of people on both sides of the issue.  And it’s contentious.

There are some very fundamental philosophical differences that exist.  Neither side seems interested in listening through the anger, the shock, the embarrassment, the outrage, and the confusion.

I’m reminded of two pertinent Winston Churchill quotes:

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.


Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak.  Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

I understand why gun advocates are getting their backs up.  I don’t agree with their logic but I understand, philosophically, where they’re coming from.  Gun violence is a reality in America.  That’s an indisputable fact.  Gun violence has been around in America for a long time.  It has touched the poorest neighbourhoods and it has touched the untouchables.  Children in the projects of New York and Chicago have witnessed gun violence.  Children in the suburbs of Colorado and Connecticut have witnessed gun violence.  Even the darkest corners of America have witnessed gun violence with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and the horrible mass shooting and assassination attempt of Gabrielle Giffords.  America is not untouched by gun violence. It’s a reality of American society.  An unfortunate one, but a reality.

Gun advocates would then argue that if we acknowledge that gun violence is a reality, why aren’t we arming ourselves, the sane and responsible citizens, to protect against the threat of gun violence?

It’s a valid point of view.  Again, I don’t agree with it, I don’t think it’s a realistic solution to the problem, but it represents the most legitimate philosophical argument I’ve seen proposed by gun advocates.

But, whether they like it or not, gun advocates are about to encounter a fight.  And they know they are.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has stated that on the first day of the new congress, she will introduce an assault weapons ban before the Senate.  This is the most basic and fundamental change that gun control advocates are looking for.  Get rid of assault weapons, and high capacity magazines.

But with a Republican controlled House of Representatives, it’s unlikely to become law.

America is thick skinned, proud, arrogant, superior and incredibly stubborn.  In a lot of ways, America is an honour society.

In 1990, Meir Kahane was assassinated in a hotel in Manhattan.  The killing marked America’s first interaction with what would come to be known as al Qaeda. High profile figures like Osama Bin Laden were already known to the US thanks to covert operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s and acts of “Islamic terrorism” (I put that in quotes because it’s a generalization and and an oversimplification) throughout the 70s and 80s, but this was something new.

By 1993, the US got a taste of just how dangerous this group could be when Ramzi Yousef conducted the bombing of the World Trade Center.  The massive fertilizer bomb, delivered in a rental truck, left a massive crater in the underground structure of the North Tower and killed six people.  It was a wake-up call to American authorities.  The potential loss of American life was suddenly very real.  But this was still the act of a small group and was no real threat to the stability of the world’s greatest superpower.

On June 15, 1996 a truck bomb was detonated outside the Khobar Towers housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.  Nineteen American servicemen were killed.  It was horrible and it required a response, but this wasn’t the first attack on Americans overseas.  An investigation was launched, servicemen were relocated and indictments would take three years. Public outrage faded.

August 7, 1998 saw the bombing of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The simultaneous attacks killed 225 and injured more than 4,000.  These attacks, for the first time, moved Osama Bin Laden into America’s public lexicon.  These attacks could not go without a military response.  But without the political will to deal al Qaeda a death blow, President Bill Clinton opted for cruise missile attacks on al Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan.  Additional targets in Sudan were destroyed as a way of punishing the Sudanese government for harbouring terrorists.

Once again, awareness of the threat was increased and many now understood the potential of a growing worldwide terrorist organization, but with the attacks taking place overseas, and particularly Africa, there was no political will for a greater response.  America remained measured.  Small corrections were supposed to fix this problem.

These are just the worst of the attacks since 1990.  There were many other failed attempts.  There were even successful attacks the US should have recognized as veiled threats to the greater security apparatus.  But outside of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the attacks maintained distance between the American people and the tangible threat.  Other places were dangerous.  Other places had dangerous people.  America was safe.

Enter September 11, 2001.  The day that changed everything. The American psyche was a crumpled wreckage in the pile of rubble where the twin towers used to stand.  There was no shortage of anger or pain or political will.

By Spring 2003, the US was engaged in two ground wars, had passed the Patriot Act, and was careening deeper and deeper into debt.  For every previously measured response, this was the unmeasured one.  Change was sweeping, it was radical, and it was angry.  And it all could have been avoided had the American public taken the earlier warning signs seriously.  Al Qaeda was never about killing a few people.  It was about the destruction of America.  It could have been dealt with in 1990, or 1993, or 1998.  It wasn’t.  It took a single event on such a massive scale as to destroy the ideas of American strength and arrogance to create a reaction.

I’d like to say the case of terrorism is unique, but it’s not.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed slavery in Britain and most of its territories.  Mexico acted in 1810. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1814.

In 1850, the US passed the Fugitive Slave Law requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their rightful owners.

It took a uniquely divisive historical event in the Civil War to change slavery laws in the US.  Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War in 1865 that the US enacted the 13th amendment.  Thirty-two years and a bloody civil war had passed since Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act.

It took two years of war in Europe and an attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbour, another uniquely horrific event, to finally pull the US into World War II.

Many people would like to think that the horrific massacre of 20 children would provide the will for change, but America remains a country greatly divided on the issue.

While the voices of gun control have been loudest in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, gun advocates have also had their say.

Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas has said that he would have preferred the principal of Sandy Hook be armed.  If she was, Gohmert argues, lives may have been saved.

Steve Dulan of the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners openly advocated for armed teachers and is pushing a state bill in Michigan that would allow for the concealed carrying of firearms in what are currently restricted zones.

The reaction on social media sites has been discernibly more vitriolic.

It’s this division, and the passion behind it, that makes any attempt at sweeping gun control legislation unlikely to succeed.

A lot of people would like to think that Sandy Hook is unique enough in its horror to promote change, but in a country that has feigned disgrace at mass shootings in the past, only to watch as gun sales increased in their wake, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. And questions really seriously need to be asked about what is enough.  It took 9/11 to prompt a response to terrorism.  It took a civil war to end slavery.  It took an attack on Pearl Harbor to draw America into World War II.

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2402 Americans, 9/11 killed nearly 3000.  So where’s the American tipping point on gun control?