Obama and Biden unveil bold and significant gun control reform proposals

If they can get it through Congress, this would be a ban with teeth.

“If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.” That was the pledge made by Barack Obama on16 December, at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday, he followed through on the promises he made that day. Taking the podium along with Vice-President Joe Biden, he announced sweeping executive orders and crucial legislative proposals designed to ensure that America will no longer have to witness the horror of mass shootings again on such a terrible, relentless, regular basis.

“No one can know for certain if this senseless act could have been prevented,” said Biden, introducing the President, “but we all know we have a moral obligation — a moral obligation — to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again.” It looks as though he meant it.

Then Obama took the stage. Pointing out that more than 900 Americans have been killed by gun violence since Sandy Hook, Obama read from a series of letters from schoolchildren he received in the aftermath, saying: “These are our kids. This is what they’re thinking about. And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for them, and shield them from harm.”

His speech included the signing of 23 executive orders that give sweeping new powers to those working in law enforcement and mental health care; aim to enforce and vastly strengthen the background-check system; and the Attorney General will review the categories of people who aren't allowed guns, review safety standards on gun-safes and locks, provide training for first responders and school officials in how to deal with school shootings, strengthen mental health care's ability to provide the care needed, as well as its ability to flag up cases where it sees danger, and several that aimed to take real steps towards a national dialogue on guns in the US, including mandating research into the causes of violence.

But the biggest announcements today, and they are huge, were the two policy proposals that every parent, every reasonable man, woman and child had been hoping to hear: the introduction of a general background check for anyone purchasing a gun, and a real ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a ban with the teeth required to prevent arms manufacturers from just circumventing it the way they did last time.

The next battle, therefore, will be in Congress. Obama has made it very clear that he is going all-out on this policy, though he warned that it wouldn't be easy. He is right; the battle will be hard-fought. The power of the pro-gun lobby and the NRA over a large swath of congress is incredible — 213 members of the House of Representatives received NRA campaign donations last year — but it is waning.

At each new legislative announcement, the assault weapon ban and the background check, Obama said “the majority of Americans agree with me on this” — a message to congressmen and woman from both sides of the aisle; effectively, saying in the clearest possible terms that he is speaking with the vox populi today: "defy me — and them — at your peril", he seemed to say.

That means that if this legislation ever had a chance of passing, that chance is now. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week shows that more than 50 per cent of those polled said that the Sandy Hook shooting had made them “more supportive” of gun control legislation, while 58 per cent now say they support the reintroduction of the ban on assault weapons. Obama and Biden are betting that, while a majority of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives oppose the ban, they will be reluctant to be seen opposing it in the face of overwhelming national support. The President will have the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, too.

“I have no illusions about what we’re up against or how hard the task is in front of us,” said Biden. “But I also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook. The world has changed, and it’s demanding action.” To a very great extent, it needs to be pointed out, this was Joe Biden's day as much as Obama's — it was he who was given the wide-ranging brief to come up with solutions; in 33 days he took more than 229 meeetings and has been prepping Congress for the coming storm. These proposals were based on his hard work.

Now it is Obama's turn to lead the fight; he must steer Congress into supporting the legislation, and make sure the national momentum is not lost in doing so. The congressional GOP has proved itself cowardly, and likely will dig its heels in, so the President must do everything he can to bully, cajole, persuade and shame them into making this legislation law. From his speech today, it sounds like he's ready.

The full text of his plan is available here (pdf). You can also watch the video of the announcement below:

Biden and Obama during the press conference at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism