Monday, 21 January 2013

From Despair comes the Courage for Change

The moment of near despair is quite often the moment that precedes
courage rather than resignation.[1]

In the wake of a series of recent tragedies involving gun violence, such as the Newtown, Connecticut Massacre of twenty elementary school students and six adults by one heavily armed 20-year old man[2], President Obama is taking bold and decisive steps to reform gun control policy in the US. In a move which can’t help but remind one of John F. Kennedy’s famous assertion that a crisis presents both a danger and an opportunity, instead of standing idly by and doing nothing President Obama is proactively taking the dangers presented by these recent crises and is converting them to opportunity. More specifically, the President is highlighting these crises as a wake-up call to the U.S. citizenry that something needs to change in order to prevent future tragedies from occurring. To effect this change and stem gun violence, the President is seeking, among other things, to restrict the ability of U.S. citizens to obtain certain types of guns and to strengthen the background checks of people seeking to acquire a weapon.

For an increasingly large and vociferous segment of the U.S. population President Obama's efforts to reform gun policy are being wholeheartedly embraced. For others, the President's proposed reforms are a reprehensible assault on their Constitutional rights.

U.S. citizens have a right to bear arms guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment. And bear arms they do. There are presently over 300 million firearms in private ownership in the U.S. With that many guns in private ownership, guns are all but entwined in the social fabric of the U.S.[3] The gun policy reform issue is as divisive as it is because if the President's reforms are successful they will not merely alter the laws of the land, they will transform the culture in the U.S. Despite the accusations of those opposed to any further gun regulation, the President is not trying to abolish or otherwise overwrite the 2nd Amendment. The President is simply seeking to reform gun policy to make gun ownership in America less cavalier.

The opposition to the proposed reforms is fierce and must be met by a President with enough iron in his spine to push forward despite the opposition. With a Presidential Memorandum from the White House Office of the Press Secretary reporting that each year there are 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the U.S., 11,000 of which are homicides, President Obama should have no shortage of motivation to bolster him as he travels the long and difficult road to gun policy reform[4]. By all accounts the President is ready to face the challenges ahead, having recently been noted as saying: "This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged." He has also stated that taking measures to offer such protection cannot be put off any longer[5].

To this end, a proposal for reform has been put forward. The proposal contains four principal sections: law enforcement; the availability of dangerous firearms and ammunition, school safety and mental health.  President Obama has made numerous recommendations that would support these key areas of concern, including requiring criminal background check for all gun sales, a reinstatement of the ban on ownership of assault weapons that was in place from 1994-2004[6], and the provision of mental health services in schools.

The recommendations require congressional approval if they are to be made effective. In the environment of divisiveness and fractured opinion surrounding gun policy reform, congressional approval presents an obvious obstacle to reform. Not to be dissuaded, however, the Obama administration is supplementing the proposals with 23 Executive Orders, which include the promotion of research on gun violence and a rule requiring federal agencies to make pertinent information available to the federal background check system[7].

None of the Executive Orders will impact on the guns that are currently owned by U.S. citizens. Further, all proposals to limit the availability of assault weapons and large ammunition magazines will still need congressional action. The restraint the President is showing in the content of these Orders is likely deliberate. The Orders make it virtually impossible for anyone in opposition to the reforms to make a case that the current administration has abused its executive authority[8]. The President is masterfully walking the line between enacting gun policy reform and creating a constitutional crisis.

With the execution of these 23 Orders, President Obama follows in a long and proud tradition of Presidents who have used Executive Orders to effect positive change in the culture of America. President Eisenhower, for instance, desegregated schools via Executive Order and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson used Executive Orders to bar racial discrimination in federal housing, hiring and contracting[9]. At the time, these Executive Orders were arguably as controversial as the Executive Orders President Obama is currently using to force a shift in American gun culture. Though controversial at the time, there are not many today who would argue for a return to racial segregation or systemic racism. Through the strength and resolve of these former Presidents, America’s culture changed for the better.

While it may be an overstatement to say that President Obama courts controversy, he is certainly no stranger to it. In passing the Affordable Care Act in his first term, the President has faced down detractors and masses of opposition before. If history is any guide, President Obama shares the mettle of estimable predecessors like Lincoln who sought to abolish slavery in spite of opposition from powerful interests, or Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson when they made Executive Orders that were met by widespread disfavour. President Obama, in short, appears to be made of the right kind of stuff to successfully change America’s gun culture.  

With the President recently saying of his recommendations that, "I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality," there is little doubt that the President will not be pushed back by the current furor or the powerful gun lobby which opposes his proposals. The President has said that if change is to come, the American people must support this effort at reform[10]. We have no doubt that the American public will recognize the wisdom of the President’s reform proposals and will support his common-sense approach to dealing with gun violence and will enable a historic shift in U.S. culture.

No matter what country a person hails from, no one wants themselves or their loved ones to be victims of violence. It is in the power of the American people to break the cycle of violence in their own country and put a stop to what the President has called “the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”[11] With the shadow of Newtown and other massacres still hanging heavy on the American conscience, American gun culture is poised to change. More and more people are coming to agree with the President that now is the time for America’s gun culture to change, for if not now, then when?

[1] Hitchens, Christopher, Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 86-87.

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