Gun reforms long overdue

A determined United States President Barack Obama last week showed he intends to go over the heads of lawmakers in Congress to push for his package of gun control measures to be adopted.

In an effort to capitalise on emotions from last month's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, Mr Obama couched his initiative in the context of protecting children from needless violence.

The campaign immediately began facing tough opposition, not only in Congress from senators from states like Texas, but also from the National Rifle Association - which denounced the President as an ''elitist hypocrite'' for opposing universal armed guards in schools while his daughters are protected by the Secret Service.

NRA president Wayne LaPierre says Americans care about their president and want to protect him with armed Secret Service agents. But when it comes to ''our most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of an American family'', children are left every day utterly defenceless. The group's campaign advertisement to this effect has been roundly criticised, with a speechwriter for former Republican president George W Bush calling it ''beyond the pale''.

It is difficult to understand from New Zealand the love some Americans have for their guns. Walking through some American towns and seeing gun-toting citizens is an eye-opener. Driving through the Midwest and seeing racks of arms attached to the back of a utility vehicle makes tourists pause.

Watching them being brandished during emotive anti-terrorist rallies is frightening. Mr Obama acknowledges his task ahead is difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty - not because that is true, but because they have to increase fear, or gain higher ratings, or produce revenue for themselves. Behind the scenes, they will do everything they can to block common-sense reforms.

Mr Obama will try to block most of the opposition by mobilising public support from usual gun opponents in urban areas and coastal states; but also in congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong. That will include large swathes of the Midwest, southern and mountain western states where gun ownership is seen as a God-given right through the Second Amendment.

Mr Obama has outlined 23 separate actions he can take unilaterally, including authorising research on gun violence and nominating a full-time director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He will call on Congress to swiftly pass a series of proposals that will, among other things, go beyond closing the gun show loophole that exempts some sellers from running criminal background checks, and enact stiffer penalties for gun traffickers. All told, Mr Obama is addressing four key goals: keeping guns out of the wrong hands, keeping ''weapons of war'' off the streets, making schools safer and improving mental health services.

Proposals will also include federal funding to allow local communities to hire 1000 school resource officers and counsellors, which will include trained police officers in the nation's schools.

In 2011, the latest year for which detailed statistics are available, there were 12,664 murders in the US. Of those, 8583 were caused by firearms, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The number of firearm-related deaths in total is much higher still. So while the Administration is expected to try to restrict some types of assault weapons, it is also focusing on ways to keep more commonly used firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals and people with mental illness.

In New Zealand, we are shocked by the news that a young South Auckland man died after being shot with an air gun. Last year, hunting accidents took the lives of some New Zealanders enjoying life in the outdoors. But it is impossible to imagine the agony of having a child mown down by an semi-automatic rifle with a 30-bullet magazine.

American civilians have 250 million to 300 million firearms, the Violence Prevention Research Programme at the University of California says. Those firearms are not going to go away anytime soon - but all strength to Mr Obama as he tries to stop the trail of death caused by those weapons.


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