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Obama must now make gun control his legacy

Before the public outrage over the Connecticut shooting dissipates, the president must take a stand.

A candle light vigil outside the White House to remember the victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yesterday morning, a twenty-year-old man in Connecticut woke up, dressed, and stepped out into the cold grey dawn. Then he walked to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and he shot and killed twenty children and six adults, including his mother – to whom his guns belonged – in cold blood. Then, he shot himself.

Soon after the news of the attack broke, White House press secretary Jay Carney released a statement. It said, inexplicably: “today is not the day to talk about gun control.”

Some have pointed out that madmen with guns are not unique to the United States. They point to Dunblane, or Anders Breivik. But after Dunblane, the UK banned handguns – and there has not been a similar attack since. In Britain last year, the sum total of death from gun crime was 39.

In the US, that total was eleven thousand, one hundred and one, and this year is on track to be even higher. Look at it this way: if the Connecticut attack was the only shooting yesterday, then the day's death toll would actually be below average. More people are murdered with guns every year in America than the total number of US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. More than twice as many people die from firearm homicide as in September 11th and Pearl Harbour combined. 31 people are murdered with a gun here every day; and these numbers don't even count accidental deaths. Just murder.

There are countries rent by sectarian violence or war where this is higher, but to my knowledge nowhere is this level of death considered business as usual – or defended as an inalienable right. Many here don't seem able to make the connection that more guns means more shootings. Some have even suggested that tragedy would have been averted had the teachers or others near the scene had guns, turning a blind eye, apparently, to the fact that the guns used belonged to the killer's mother, one of the victims, and were bought legally.

Here's the rub: Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Guns just make it exponentially easier.

The US's love affair with firearms dates back to its independence, the wars with Britain and with Mexico, and its wild frontiers where a gun was a vital tool for self-defence. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment to the constitution, signed by Thomas Jefferson and adopted into law in 1791. It reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”

The US courts have largely ignored the “well-regulated militia” part of the amendment, however, and choose instead to interpret the constitution as upholding as inalienable an individual's right to carry deadly weapons, from pistols to hunting rifles all the way to military-spec thousand-rounds-a-minute assault weapons.

The killer at Sandy Hook was carrying two pistols and a Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic assault carbine rifle, a weapon designed specifically to get around the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban. It bears about as close a resemblance to “arms” that Thomas Jefferson would have recognised as a hundred-ton battle tank does to a warhorse.

Obama must now make gun-control his legacy. With no further elections to win, and a reinforced popular mandate, as well as the public outrage that will follow from Sandy Hook, an American president will see few opportunities as good as this to force tighter controls on America's gun-owning public. A ban is extreme and impossible; but severe restrictions on assault weapons and high-powered rifles, as well as stricter licensing, tests and registration procedures, would improve the situation. This time does feel different. Vigils are in place at the White House calling for gun control, and an online petition to change the law has already reached 25,000 signatures; the threshold for a government response.

But the gun lobby is extremely powerful. Just three days ago, a circuit court ruled that an Illinois handgun ban was unconstitutional – the case was funded by the National Rifle Association, who have political leverage over much of Congress, too. Their political sway is enormous. In the last election, the NRA outspent all gun-control groups by twelve to one.

If Obama doesn't make a real stand today, the response to this tragedy will be grimly predictable. There will be speechifying in which his sympathy is offered “as a parent” and action vaguely promised. Politicians will proffer their prayers and their tears. But nothing will change.

“As a country, we've been through this too many times,” Obama said in a statement yesterday afternoon, and his voice cracked with genuine emotion. But behind the scenes, he will be being told that any sweeping gun-control legislation is practically a non-starter, especially during fragile negotiations on the fiscal cliff. Of course, gun control can wait, but the debt cieling - that must be dealt with without delay. Gun control can always wait.

But if this very real sense of national anger is not capitalised upon, America will sigh and it will dwindle; just like after Clackamas, after Oak Creek, after Aurora, after Oikos, after Seal Beach, after Tucson, after Fort Hood, after Binghampton, afterBrookfield, after Meridian, after Wedgewood, after Virginia Tech, and after Columbine. The media will briefly obsess over trivial details in the killer's life story, then wring its hands and agonise about its coverage, and then swiftly forget as the cycle turns.

And in six months or a year, another kid with a grievance will pick up another assault rifle, take a breath, and step out into another cold grey dawn.