Tensions soar as US strives to balance gun rights, safety in Newtown’s aftermath
Ingrid Burke, RAPSI
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – Amendment II, US Constitution
As US Vice President Joe Biden evokes graphic images of small children “riddled with bullet holes” while lobbying for change in the aftermath of December’s Newtown massacre, guns and ammunition are flying off the shelves across the nation amidst mounting fears of sweeping legislative reform.
Speaking with the press Thursday prior to meeting with stakeholders in the gun-violence debate, Biden explained: “In all my years involved in these issues, there is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people… nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little six-year-old kids riddled… riddled, riddled, with bullet holes in their classroom.”
He was referring of course to the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last December that claimed the lives of 20 small children and six adults. The massacre horrified the nation, prompting the White House’s determined pursuit for reduced gun violence.
Biden closed Thursday’s briefing with promises that the Second Amendment would not be sacrificed in the course of this pursuit, stating: “I think we can do a great deal without in any way imposing on or impinging on the rights… that the Second Amendment guarantees.”
To the surprise of no one, the National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s foremost gun lobby, would walk away from its meeting with Biden later that same day disgruntled over the beating that the Second Amendment stands to take, in its view, at the White House’s hands. An official statement released shortly afterward stated: “We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment.”
As stated in a press release issued late last month, the NRA firmly holds that“[t]he only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection.” The oft-quoted declaration: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” has been greeted by advocates on opposing sides of the gun-rights spectrum with equal, albeit irreconcilable fervor.
The NRA vowed after Thursday’s meeting to take its fight to Congress: “It is unfortunate that [the Obama] Administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works - and what does not.”
The NRA has long maintained close congressional ties. In fact as recently as last summer, Congress demonstrated its commitment to Second Amendment rights in a bold faceoff of sorts with the United Nations in a move that the NRA takes at least partial credit for.
The UN’s 193 member states dedicated practically the whole of last July to crafting a highly-anticipated treaty meant to regulate the international arms trade. An early draft of the treaty released shortly before the conference’s deadline received heated criticism over what was perceived to be an overly broad range of arms and activities sought to be regulated. The range of arms alone ran the gamut from battle tanks and warships to small arms and light weapons.
American gun-rights advocacy groups took issue in particular with the inclusion in the draft treaty of small arms and light weapons, based on concerns that such would threaten the Second Amendment.
As the conference’s deadline neared, an insurmountable stalemate took hold. As it became exceedingly clear that the treaty would not pass, some blamed a group of US senators that took matters into their own hands.
Specifically, all eyes were on 51 US senators who teamed up and pledged to vote against ratifying the treaty if it failed to adequately protect the Constitutional rights of US citizens to bear arms. Under American law, the ratification of an international treaty requires the approval of two-thirds of the senate. Given that the senate is only 100 men and women strong, 51 votes would guarantee against the treaty’s ratification.
Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who led the initiative, released a copy of the pledge letter online a day prior to the conference’s closure. Urging President Barrack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to protect the rights afforded US citizens under the Second Amendment even if doing so would require derailing the conference’s required consensus, the letter stated: “As the treaty process continues, we strongly encourage your administration not only to uphold our country’s constitutional protections of civilian firearms ownership, but to ensure – if necessary, by breaking consensus at the July conference – that the treaty will explicitly recognize the legitimacy of lawful activities associated with firearms, including but not limited to the right of self-defense. As members of the United States Senate, we will oppose the ratification of any Arms Trade Treaty that falls short of this standard.”
As the deadline passed without consensus, the State Department issued a release urging the imperatives of more time and more talks: “we do not support a vote in the [United Nations General Assembly] on the current text. The illicit trafficking of conventional arms is an important national security concern for the United States. While we sought to conclude this month’s negotiations with a Treaty, more time is a reasonable request for such a complex and critical issue. The current text reflects considerable positive progress, but it needs further review and refinement.”
That same day, the NRA took credit for the treaty’s demise, stating in a press release: “The Conference on the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty… has broken down and will not report a draft treaty to the member nations… This is a big victory for American gun owners, and the NRA is being widely credited for killing the [treaty].”
According to the press release, the NRA’s role in the treaty’s undoing involved the following: “NRA worked with our allies in the U.S. Congress and successfully assembled strong bipartisan opposition to any treaty that adversely impacts the Second Amendment. On two occasions NRA was successful in convincing a majority of the U.S. Senate to sign letters to President Obama that made it clear that any treaty that included civilian arms was not going to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.”
This is just one recent example of the NRA’s success in working with Congress in order to protect the right to bear arms, but it illustrates clearly the strength of its congressional ties.
From this perspective, the NRA’s determination to seek congressional protection from what it perceives to be threats to the Second Amendment posed by the White House’s current gun-safety warpath comes from a place of confidence.
However, the Newtown massacre has evoked an arguably unmatched public fury, inspiring the White House to take decisive action.
Speaking at Thursday’s briefing, Biden proclaimed the imperative that we “diminish the probability that what we’ve seen in these mass shootings will occur, and diminish the probability that our children are at risk in their schools, and diminish the probability that weapons [and] firearms will be used in dealing with the abhorrent behavior that takes place in our society.”
Like Biden’s vivid account of six-year-old children riddled with bullet holes, arguments centering on the safety of school children are far more difficult on a basic moral level to challenge than were arguments favoring the UN arms trade treaty.
This in and of itself may weaken ties between the NRA and its congressional allies, at least during this crucial time.
Failing that, however, the NRA still may be lower on options than it’s used to being.
A press release issued by the NRA Friday quoted Biden as having vowed White House action even if Congress proves resistant. According to the statement, Biden said Wednesday while leaving a meeting: “"The president is going to act… There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet. But we’re compiling it all with the help [of] the attorney general and all the rest of the Cabinet members as well as legislative action we believe is required."
The NRA then unleashed its battle cry, urging its massive four-million-member base and anyone else concerned with Second Amendment rights to rally: “These proposed actions are not simply another rehash of old, failed strategies. This is an all-out attack on the Constitution and the rule of law. This is about the wholesale destruction of gun rights in this country. This is about destroying everything the NRA has done over the last 20 years. The gloves are off and we need to face the challenge squarely…”
Biden expects to deliver to President Obama next Tuesday the recommendations he plans to develop after having met with a wide array of stakeholders in the gun safety/Second Amendment debate.