Friday, 19 April 2013

The history of US gun control: don't hold your breath

Gun control. It's what Americans call a hot-button issue. Europeans looked on, aghast as the US Senate refused (above) even to pass tougher background checks on gun buyers this week - a common sense measure that is so far short of gun control measures in the rest of the developed world that it was hard to see, from outside, what all the fuss was about.

Here's one thing it was about: a long history of trying, again and again, to hold the line on guns after each massacre or assassination. Efforts that have usually failed, and revealed a deep-seated divide about what America really is or stands for.

The United States is a more violent place than most other rich countries. Petty and property crime is less out of line with the rest of the world, of course, but we're focusing on gun violence here, so we can leave the debate about that mismatch slightly to one side. That creates campaign after campaign for 'something to be done' about gun crime, but an equal and opposite reaction among citizens who want to defend themselves, and see no reason why they - 'law abiding citizens' as they are - should do anything to accommodate the acts of a few criminals in their midst. Massive and well-funded campaigns by the National Rifle Association mean that the air is never clear of pro-gun sentiment and, simply put, many politicians are either afraid of them or funded by them.

Republicans have been moving rapidly rightwards in recent years, away from the former position and towards the latter - all the while giving the Democrats a stick to beat them with among a public who definitely back extended background checks, if not wider 'gun control'. Republicans don't like being painted as a bunch of backwoods social darwinists, but their political tin ears mean they can't hear what they sound like to non-ideologues among the actual voters any more. So let's hear it for Senators such as John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, politicians who are right-of-centre (and from states with lots of gun owners), but who put their principles and their sense of the public good before the (figurative) loaded gun that was put to their head by the NRA. There was just a faint whiff there of a lost tribe: the moderate Republicans who once made the Congress work. Without them, there's unlikely to be much legislation out of Washington any time soon. Which, of course, is how the NRA - and any number of other pressure groups, on both Left and Right - really want it.

You might say that the history of 'Obamacare', now likely to come into force across the United States, is a hopeful sign. Decades of pressure for a better healthcare deal for most Americans, and a long search for some way to constrain costs, included an attempt by Bill and Hillary Clinton to extend the reach of insurance cover - another reforming effort shot down in the Congress during the 1990s. Wave after wave of pressure for reform might break the log-jam in the end.

But today's House of Representatives is now so gerrymandered, and so partisan, that it seems unlikely that either side of America's great political divide will ever have a bit majority again - and if that is possible, it certainly won't be the more pro-control Democrats doing the winning while Republicans control most of the state governments who draw up House seat boundaries. Even had the (admittedly feeble) compromsie cleared the Senate's absurdly restrictive filibuster rule and attracted sixty votes, it'd have been obliterated in the House. It's that simple. Both sides of the debate have gone away claiming victory, and they'll probably go on doing that all the way to the next federal elections in 2014 and 2016.

One day there'll be a comprehensive gun deal. For now? Don't hold your breath.