The tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut late last year is one that needs no introduction; a massacre that left 20 young students and six teachers dead. It shocked and saddened the entire international community, and ultimately left one topic welling in the minds of many: American gun regulation.
In the immediate wake of this heartbreaking event, President Obama made an emotional appeal to the American public, stating that, “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action.” What ‘meaningful action’ would equate to was unclear and as the months passed by, it seemed as though Sandy Hook was to become just another statistic.
However, in late March during a press release delivered to an audience of parents who have lost their children to gun violence, the President assured the public that the promise for ‘meaningful action’ had not been a meaningless remark.
A number of reforms were put forward, including compulsory universal background checks for anyone buying a gun, tougher penalties for anyone who buys a gun and then sells it to criminals, and measures to keep high capacity ammunition magazines off the streets.
“None of these ideas should be controversial. Why wouldn’t we want to make it more difficult for a dangerous person to get his or her hand on a gun?
“Why wouldn’t we want to close the loophole that allows as many as 40 per cent of all gun purchases to take place without a background check?
“Why wouldn’t we do that?” he asked his audience.
However less than a month on, those questions are left ringing in the ears of Mr Obama and gun control lobbyists, after a watered-down version of the proposals failed to pass through the Senate, revealing how ingrained and never ending this debate is among the America people, and within American politics.
The measure fell six votes short of the 60 it needed to advance in the Senate, resulting with 54 in favour and 46 opposed. Of the 46 votes that opposed the measures, five were from Democrats, four of whom face re-election in North Dakota, Alaska, Arkansas and Montana, all of which are considered more conservative, and “gun friendly” states.
This outcome is also a reflection of the unyielding power and influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their prominent self-described role as “America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights”.
Over four million members strong, the NRA provides training courses for gun owners and educational programs for primary school children in gun safety, but what they are more prominently known for is their political influence, which in the lead-up to the Senate vote, was in full swing.
According to Reuters, NRA members and officials made an unwavering stream of calls to Republicans and conservative Democrats in the lead-up to the vote. In particular they urged swing votes such as Democratic Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, to go against the measure. Which he did.
It is a heavy blow for gun control allies and Mr Obama’s second-term agenda, who, in the wake of the announcement, was with Newtown family members.
“It came down to politics. All in all, this was a shameful day for Washington,” he said.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 11,000 gun homicides and nearly 19,000 gun suicides annually in America.
Other statistics stand out.
Children aged 5 to 14 in America are 13 times more likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialised countries.
More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
A gun is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a household member or guest than in the death of an intruder, which is particularly concerning when it is considered that 47% of Americans say they have a gun in their home or on their property.
They are alarming statistics among many more, from a six billion dollar industry.
At its core it is a debate that boils down to two conflicting rights. The right to have a gun in conjunction with the Second Amendment, and the right of the public not to be unduly exposed to the dangers imposed by the widespread availability of guns.
Within the United States Constitution, the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights specifically states, “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.”
Written after the revolutionary war in the 1700s, the Constitution is the most holy of US documents, and it is this particular sentence that is the crux of the debate for many Americans.
As DJ Cisek, 24, from New York explained, to enforce too many restrictions on guns would be in direct violation of the Second Amendment, and thus the rights and freedom of American citizens.
“It’s a fundamental right that the government is subservient to the people and you see that through the Second Amendment because, god forbid, if the federal government became too powerful, you always have the force of the people and the states,” he said.
“You would argue that today the likelihood of that happening is slim to none and I would tend to agree with that, but at the time they wrote that in the constitution it was really possible, and as such it has become a very important right to the American people.”
Jordan Johnson, 22, of South Carolina, agrees whole-heartedly with this notion.
“The Second Amendment was put into the constitution to resist tyranny, and the way we see it is that tyranny is not between two people, tyranny is the government against its people.”
“When you’re going to threaten to take guns away, something that I am using to protect myself, or my family, and then you’re saying rely on the government, because they have guns, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
Johnson bought his first gun just after he turned 20, a hunting rifle, and since then has also purchased a shotgun and a handgun.
The former two he bought for recreational purposes, and will occasionally take them to a shooting range, but he keeps the handgun in the glove box of his car for safety and self-defence purposes.
John Nguyen, 24, who grew up in Michigan but currently resides in Memphis, Tennessee, sits on the other side of the fence.
“With any amendment, nothing can ever be set in stone. Things have to be allowed to change and evolve, which is true of any law or rule,” says Nguyen.
“An easy example is sports. There are always going to be changes to the rules of any sport, from American football to tennis, because technology is constantly evolving.
“I don’t see any issue with going back and reviewing and revising.”
Perhaps the most prominent new proposal by President Obama was “universal background checks for anyone who wants to buy a gun so that criminals or people with severe mental illnesses can’t get their hands on one.”
In Australia, buying a handgun involves a 28-day waiting period, while in Canada potential gun owners have to provide the support of two people who will vouch for their legitimate reasons of purchase.
Even with background checks, currently a citizen in America can in most cases walk in and out of a store on the same day with a gun.
Despite this there are many, including Johnson, who feel that even this revision would not have much of an impact on crimes involving guns, but rather just punish the vast majority of gun owners who respect the powerful nature of guns and use them safely.
“You’re never going to be able to stop people from selling guns to each other; there are always going to be illegal guns. I think you need to stop putting so many regulations on citizens that abide by the rules,” says Johnson.
He continues, “Everyone that goes into a store to buy a gun, they know they’re going to get checked out. Criminals don’t go into a sporting goods store and try to buy a pistol, they know they’re going to have to get checked, so they go to the dude down the street that’s selling pistols out of the back of his car. They know they’re not going to be checked and the gun isn’t going to be registered to anyone.”
DJ Cisek, while in full support of the Second Amendment, feels that curbing the number of people affected by mental illness who can access guns is a step in the right direction.
“There are always going to be loopholes with people using guns that aren’t registered to them, or people with severe mental health problems that aren’t documented, but I think it’s an additional part of the process that is essential and to a certain extent, achievable.”
Ultimately, if any regulation could put even a small dint in the statistics quoted at the beginning of this article, then in the eyes of citizens such as Nguyen, it’s a sacrifice worth making.
“Increased gun control would prevent more of these massacres from happening. I’m not going to say it’s going to prevent all of them, no it wouldn’t. But would it prevent some of them? Yes. Would it prevent at least one out of 100 of them? For sure. And that’s enough for me, it really is. If it saves the life of one innocent child, it’s totally worth it,” Nguyen says.
Back in March the President assured that the lives lost in Newtown last December had by no means been forgotten.
However, with the Senate failing to pass the reforms that were proposed by Obama in that same speech, many are left begging the question; if 20 children slaughtered in their classrooms isn’t going to be enough for evolvement in gun safety, what will be?