In Newtown shooting aftermath, ‘action’ talk on gun control is cheap

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

As America and, by extension, Canada move on from the tragic attack on a Connecticut elementary school that left 26 staff and students dead and far more families mourning, there is a sense that perhaps this time the outrage will make way for actual change.

The outpouring of sentiment following the horrific events in Newtown, Conn., late last week have been quick and aggressive, and have expanded well beyond the once-picturesque town and its grieving residents.

Professional athletes have written the names of victims on their sneakers in well-intentioned tributes. "Saturday Night Live" opened their weekend show with a heartfelt moment that made no attempt at humour and memorials of all sorts have been held in towns and homes across the country.

[ Related: Shocked Obama wants to target gun violence ]

In Canada, Ontario teachers planned on wearing black armbands, even as they continue to hold rolling strikes across the province. Rogers Media is promoting a "Hug Your Kids Today" campaign — an event meant as a chance for us to lend support to those suffering in the U.S.

They are all beautiful ideas — and the fact that they will not affect the real issues at hand should not take away from their messages.

Parents should hug their children, today they should hug them harder than ever, but unless those parents are lawmakers, gun lobbyists or dedicated to demanding actual change, such campaigns are a temporary tonic at best.

President Barack Obama has called for meaningful action, vowing during a memorial service in Newtown to use "whatever power this office holds" to prevent more tragedies.

"We can't accept events like this as routine," Obama said during the vigil on Sunday. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that politics are too hard, are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year is the price of our freedom?"

[ Full coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting ]

Obama's message was stirring and powerful. But it will only be meaningful if actual change follows. The president's message did not say it outright, but one issue that must be addressed is the prevalent gun culture in America.

Senators were calling the Newtown massacre a potential "tipping point" in the gun-control debate and members of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) were, for the moment, mostly silent.

The first change being urged, according to the Associated Press, is to implement a ban on military-style assault weapons. Among the supporters of the move are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat and lifelong member of the NRA.

The .223 Bushmaster, a semiautomatic rifle reportedly possessed by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and available for sale in most of the country, is more powerful than anything the military had when the Second Amendment was drafted to protect a U.S. citizen's right to bear arms.

Banning such weapons would be a start. Other suggestion laws include tougher background checks on gun purchases and stricter penalties for those who buy guns for people who cannot legally own them.

Yet whether anything could or would be done is still very in doubt.

[ Related: Funerals begin for Newtown victims ]

Sanford Levinson, a U.S. constitutional scholar, outlines in the Globe and Mail exactly why it is so hard to make changes to gun laws in America (hint: the well-organized NRA plays a key role).

And author Adam Cohen writes that previous tragedies have galvanized such talk before, but did not lead to actual progress. In fact, research polls suggest popular opinion has moved toward greater gun rights, not greater gun control, in recent years.

Cohen says the key to enacting actual change is, perhaps sadly, concessions.

He writes, via

[T]he best chance for stronger laws would be for gun control advocates to work with moderate members of the gun-owning community and come up with a "grand compromise" gun bill. That means a bill that does not demonize guns, but instead seeks to build a consensus in favor of prudent gun use.

Obama and those dedicated to change must appeal to moderate gun owners by offering concessions in exchange for support on some of those key changes. In exchange for an assault weapon ban and tougher background checks they could offer to expand hunting regulations and cut some of the red tape around hunting.

[ Related: Educators on edge as children go back to school in U.S. ]

It's tough to talk of concessions in the wake of such a tragedy, but Obama has vowed change and must deliver. If that change comes in small steps, so be it. But the steps had better start now.

The rest of us should continue hugging our children, but we must be prepared to speak up if those steps falter.