Rifts in US love affair with guns

By Tim Walker

Horror of primary school massacre may finally loosen the tight political grip of National Rifle Association.

Heavily armed state troopers were sent to the Sandy Hook school. Photo / AP
Heavily armed state troopers were sent to the Sandy Hook school. Photo / AP

Amid fears that the Newtown shootings will do nothing to shake the United States into tightening gun laws, there was a glimmer of hope that, finally, something might happen.

A senior Democrat, John Larson, who represents Connecticut, called for Congress to look at sweeping new gun control measures, including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

This followed President Barack Obama's call for "meaningful action"on gun violence, which was criticised as being too vague.

Larson, who is chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic caucus, said Congress must vote quickly on tighter gun controls, including the institution of background checks for all gun sales.

"Politics be darned. Of the 12 deadliest shootings in our nation's history, half of them have happened in the last five years. And there is not a single person in America who doesn't fear it will happen again."

He is backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, New York Democrat Representative Carolyn McCarthy and California Representative George Miller.

An indication of the forces that stand between the US and more stringent gun control laws was evident in this year's Tennessee congressional race.

Republican Debra Maggart had not faced a primary challenge for her seat in the state's House of Representatives since her election in 2004. But in August she lost to a rival Republican candidate who was backed by the National Rifle Association.

In an ad campaign, the NRA called Maggart an enemy of the constitution, because she opposed a law allowing employees to bring guns to the workplace. The NRA claims the measure - already in place in 17 other states - is necessary for commuters to protect themselves going to work.

When politicians warn against politicising a mass shooting in the US, they are warning against discussion of reforming the gun laws. And the reason politicians are wary of gun law reform is fear of the NRA.

The most powerful of the country's countless lobby groups is also its oldest continuously operating civil rights organisation.

It was formed in 1871 by two Civil War veterans - one a journalist, the other a lawyer - who hoped to improve the nation's marksmanship.

The NRA's legislative affairs division was formed during the debate over the National Firearms Act of 1934, which it supported, as it did the Gun Control Act of 1968. The two acts created a licensing and tax system for the private ownership of firearms.

It was only in the 1970s that the NRA became the aggressively conservative, libertarian organisation it is today, proclaiming the civil right of citizens to bear arms, on the basis of the constitution's ambiguously worded second amendment.

Today, it sponsors shooting competitions, publishes magazines such as American Rifleman, sponsors safety training programmes and actively involves itself in politics. In 2010, the NRA had a budget of US$307 million and has 4.3 million members.

The role of NRA president was famously filled by Charlton Heston between 1998 and 2003. Today's president, David Keene, worked on US presidential campaigns for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Eight Presidents have been association members, including Reagan, who, in 1980, was the first candidate to be officially endorsed by the NRA.

In 2008, the organisation spent US$100 million in an attempt to defeat Barack Obama at the ballot box, claiming his victory would lead to a gun ban.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll in April found that 68 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of the NRA. Since then there have been six mass shootings from Seattle to Connecticut.

-Independent

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