In the massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut, a 20-year-old man killed 20 young children and six adults before turning one of his guns on himself. Earlier he had shot his mother at the home that they shared. This event is the latest and most horrific mass murder in the United States during 2012, which has been a very bad year in that respect. Is it possible to make sense of these events? Is it possible to do anything about them?
What most have in common is that the shooter is a young man or adolescent who is heavily armed with guns (bombings are rare). And while these events spread terror, they are rarely political. Even the multiple shooting in Tucson that included a US Congresswoman as a target does not have a clear agenda behind it.
Rather, the acts are products of a warped quest to inflict pain on a grand stage — made possible by the ready availability of guns. They succeed in the sense of creating widespread fear, and in the sense that if an elementary school or movie theatre or temple is not safe, then there is no safe place.
Could anything be done? The regulations governing gun commerce and possession in the US are relatively lax. When Australia suffered a series of mass shootings culminating in the Tasmanian massacre (35 deaths) of 1996, the government responded by banning semi-automatic firearms and running a remarkably effective national buyback programme.
There have been no mass shootings since then. While it is difficult to prove cause and effect, it is plausible that by making it more difficult for mentally ill people to obtain firearms, the risk of mass tragedy is greatly reduced. Similarly, Britain’s response to the Dunblane massacre of sixteen school children in the same year led to a ban on handguns and a massive buyback.
It is not possible to imagine such tough measures being adopted in the US, especially since the US Supreme Court discovered a personal right to keep firearms in the Constitutional Bill of Rights (Heller vs. District of Columbia, 2008). But something may happen this time.
President Obama, who said almost nothing about gun regulation during the campaign that resulted in his re-election last month, has now announced that he will act. What might come of that determination is not clear, but perhaps the National Rifle Association’s death-grip on US politics has been eased a bit-at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, the terror will continue, and not just in rampages. There are about 400 children under age 15 shot and killed every year in the US. Most of these deaths do not occur in wealthy suburbs like Newtown, but rather in neighbourhoods where daily violence is the norm and gunshots are frequently heard. Children growing up in those neighbourhoods are traumatised-in many cases warranting a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome-and the parents have the daunting challenge of keeping them safe from stray bullets.
What is needed in those cases, in addition to more effective regulation, is a determination by the police and courts to make gun violence the highest priority, with the goal being to get guns off the street. The evidence on concentrated enforcement is clear-it can work, but requires determination and resources.