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“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change.” 

So said President Barack Obama at a memorial service for the victims of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school where 20 children aged six and seven died in a hail of bullets on Dec.14. The shooter, aged 20, also shot dead his mother and six adults before killing himself.

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true,” the president added. “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

Whether Obama, Congress, and American society as a whole will do better in the future than they have in the past remains to be seen. If statistics and history serve as a guide, the prospect of an end to gun rampages by deranged citizens is anything but bright.

Statistics first: The United States leads the world in the number of guns in private hands — 270 million by a widely-used estimate — as well as the number of citizens killed by guns, through murder and suicide. History second: none of the mass shootings in the past has broadly affected a culture of violence nourished by violent movies, television and computer games.

Advocates of a fresh approach on guns and violence say that the murder of children at Newtown has been so shocking that it will mark a turning point and kick off a serious debate leading to new regulations and fewer killings. Optimists cite a poll that showed slightly over half of those interviewed thought the Connecticut shooting points to broader problems in society.

Public opinion polls after previous mass shootings suggested a tendency to see them as isolated incidents — acts committed by deranged individuals. That view makes it easy to “chalk it up to a troubled person and move on,” as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza put it.

This is exactly what has happened, gradually, since the first highly-publicized mass shooting at an institute of learning, the 1966 killing spree at the University of Texas in Austin. There, a young man with an arsenal of rifles used the campus clock tower as a sniper platform and killed 16 people, wounding another 31.

The clock tower sniper rekindled a debate over access to firearms — “as easy to get as baskets of fruit and cartons of cigarettes” according to then President Lyndon Johnson — that was sparked by the mail-order sniper rifle used to assassinate John F. Kennedy in 1963. The debate has waxed and waned over the past 50 years and the positions of Americans in favor or against tighter regulations have barely changed.

Those against see regulation as a threat to their constitutional right to own and bear arms, enshrined in the second amendment of the constitution. When it was adopted in 1791, the single-shot muzzle-loaded muskets then in use would have made mass shootings impossible. Those in favor see tighter controls on private gun ownership as the best way to reduce the number of deaths by firearms. It has been running at around 30,000 a year, roughly half by murders, half by suicides.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), staunch opponent of any additional rules, has consistently denied that there is a link between the availability of firearms and the murder/suicide rate. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is the organization’s mantra. Contrast that with an attack on an elementary school in China on the same day as the Connecticut slaughter.

The unhinged attacker in China wielded a knife and stabbed 22 children, nine of  them seriously enough to be rushed to hospital. The attacker in Newtown used a semi-automatic rifle and 30-round magazines. They were illegal under the so-called assault weapons ban that took effect in 1994 and lapsed in 2004.

The legislation, full of loopholes, had limited effect and did not stop mass shootings: the two teenagers who carried out the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, at the time the worst school shooting in U.S. history, circumvented the rules.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, has said she plans to introduce legislation to re-introduce the ban.

What the president had in mind when he said “we must change” is not yet clear. In his first term, he stayed away from the divisive issue of guns and violence, much to the dismay of gun control advocates who felt he lacked the courage to take on the NRA.

In his second, staying aloof  is no longer an option. By Dec. 17,  just four days after the Connecticut shooting, a citizen petition posted on the White House’s We the People website, had garnered 165,000 signatures — by far the most since the page was set up last year.

It said: “We petition the Obama administration to immediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress.”

While that is pending, gun-loving Americans are doing what they have done after every mass shooting in recent years — stock up on guns and ammunition to beat possible new restrictions. Gun dealers around the country report that business is booming.

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S.

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