Obama must now make gun control his legacy

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

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.

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.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.