Caught in the crossfire

AFTER Newtown's children were shot dead, the gravel car park out the front of the Clark Brothers gun shop in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia filled up and the queues snaked through the store's narrow passageways.

AFTER Newtown's children were shot dead, the gravel car park out the front of the Clark Brothers gun shop in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia filled up and the queues snaked through the store's narrow passageways. This was no surprise to staff, who had seen the rush many times before.

The first time was when President Obama was elected and unfounded rumours swirled through National Rifle Association circles that he planned to clamp down on sales of semi-automatic rifles and various types of ammunition.

They formed again as the last election approached, and they form in the wake of every massacre.

Asked how many semi-automatics and how much ammo they had sold, a friendly staff member with a no-nonsense manner could not say. "[Sales] went up until we ran out," he explained. "Then they went down."

Ross Meyer of Gunworld and Archery in Nevada told ABC News that not only were they out of Bushmaster AR-15s (the civilian cousin of the military M16, they are made by many different manufacturers, see box), all their suppliers were sold out too.

Surges in gun sales have become part of the awful choreography of mass killings in America, which are common enough to have gathered about them their own routines. (Indeed, they are common enough that the surviving primary school children of Sandy Hook had been drilled in evacuating their classrooms with their eyes closed.)

First there is the devastating shock, then the public memorial. Throughout this time there will be a public debate about guns. The National Rifle Association, America's most powerful and feared lobby group, offers its condolences and then retreats into silence while its surrogates attack anyone who dares advocate for gun control, accusing them of politicising the tragedy. The victims are buried and the issue fades away.

This time, though, some believe, it will be different. The death count is so high and its victims so young that politicians who once did not dare challenge the NRA are already speaking out, including Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, as well as pro-gun Democrats from West Virginia and Virginia.

The two biggest retailers of AR-15s, Walmart and Dick's Sporting Goods, have suspended their sale, and the New York-based private equity group Cerberus Capital Management - which invests money on behalf of public employees such as teachers, among other clients - has already sold Freedom Group International, which makes Bushmaster rifles, the brand Adam Lanza used for his slaughter.

A CNN poll published on Wednesday found 46 per cent of people believe government and society can take action to prevent future gun violence, an increase of 13 percentage points from January 2011, following a shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, that left six dead and some, including then congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, severely injured.

In a press conference on Wednesday, congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed and son injured in a 1993 shooting rampage, said the time for stricter gun control laws had finally come. "This time is different because now we have a president who is standing behind us," Ms McCarthy told reporters.

And the President has already begun to act on the vow he made during his speech at the memorial service at Newtown High School in Connecticut to use all the power of his office to effect real change.

On Wednesday, he appointed Vice-President Joe Biden to lead an interagency effort to craft new gun policies, ordering the group to offer its proposals in January.

"We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides," Obama said. "But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing."

This is an indication that Obama is taking the matter seriously. The key modern role of the Vice-President is to prosecute specific complex issues on behalf of the White House.

The signals so far are that the President wants to see a ban on semi-automatic rifles and on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds as well as improvements to the screening of those buying guns. (Under the current regime, the so-called secondary market, which includes private sales and sales from gun shows and constitutes about 40 per cent of all sales, is exempt from any screening.)

According to the CNN poll, 62 per cent of Americans favour a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Reuters poll released on Monday found 50 per cent of Americans agreed that "gun ownership should have strong regulations or restrictions", compared with 42 per cent before the Newtown shooting, and a CBS News poll found a 10-year high of 57 per cent of Americans who support stricter gun control measures.

Despite this historical surge in public support for some forms of gun control in America, experts believe the NRA remains powerful and intransigent enough to ensure any major reforms are blocked.

THE NRA was not always so single-minded in its defence of America's second amendment right to bear arms. The organisation was created after the Civil War by veterans who were concerned at the poor marksmanship they had seen in combat. It grew into an organisation concerned with hunting, training and gun safety.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when gun control advocates were at their most powerful in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, and in the wake of spreading gun violence in American inner cities, the NRA was co-operating with the government to help introduce some gun control.

But a coup during a national convention in 1977, led by a bullet-headed man called Harlon Carter, changed the organisation overnight.

Carter had long believed the role of the NRA should be the absolute defence of the second amendment right of Americans to "keep and bear arms" and was disgusted at the NRA's leadership for its co-operation over gun control.

He was once asked if he would "rather allow those convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics people to have guns, rather than to have the screening process for the honest people like yourselves?" He replied that such a sacrifice was the "price of freedom". He is the father of the modern NRA.

With its new ideological conviction, the NRA grew over the subsequent years into the most powerful lobby group in America. Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir that in 1994 it took the scalps of 34 Democrats who had signed the last ban on assault rifles that was allowed to expire in 2004.

The NRA casts itself as the voice of the average American shooter, and it took $106 million from membership dues and fees in 2010. But it is increasingly taking donations from gun manufacturers too. The Violence Policy Centre estimates it raised $US38.9 million in 2010 in industry donations through its Ring of Freedom program.

While the NRA does donate to politicians, it spends far more money on communicating with its 4 million members, and this is the true source of its political power.

At the heart of it is the NRA's grading system. Whenever a bill that the NRA has interest in comes up for a vote, the association announces that it will be "scoring" it. This means it will record each member's vote and use the data to create a grade from A to D for each politician.

Democratic members from traditionally pro-gun states know they are unlikely to ever win the vote of NRA members, but if they can keep their NRA grade high they might avoid having them turn out to vote against them.

To many Democrats, the NRA grade is the mark of life or death. (Republicans can generally be relied on to vote the NRA's way on any issue.)

The impact on policymaking in Washington cannot be exaggerated. This is how a Democratic Capitol Hill staffer recently described the process to GQ magazine: "We do absolutely anything they ask and we never cross them, which includes asking permission to co-sponsor any bills endorsed by the Humane Society (the answer is usually no) and complying with their demand to oppose the DISCLOSE Act, neither of which have anything to do with guns.

"They've completely shut down the debate over gun control. It's really incredible. I'm not sure when we decided that a Democrat in a marginal district who loses his A rating from the NRA automatically loses re-election. Because it's not like we do everything other partisan organisations like the Chamber [of Commerce] or NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] tell us to."

Whatever the power of the NRA, Professor Robert Cotroll, of George Washington University, believes significant gun controls will never take hold in the US because of the second amendment, a part of law and American culture he says few foreigners understand.

The amendment says in full: "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."

The phrase regarding the militia was once understood to mean that states had the right to maintain armed militias. The modern understanding of it, shared (propagated) by the NRA and much of Congress - and by Cotroll - is that the amendment confers an individual right to bear arms.

Cotroll says Americans, more than Europeans or Australians, understand that governments can turn to tyranny, and are more likely to should they hold a "monopoly of force". Asked why so many in the US are ready to believe that their government may turn on them, he says, "Why don't you turn that question around? Why don't you ask why the rest of the world does not? Over the past 100 years, 100 million people have been killed by their own governments."

This, he says, is why many Americans are willing to put up with the bloodshed - guns are not just a right, they are the key to maintaining all their rights. He believes the second amendment does protect high-powered assault rifles, though he draws the line at machineguns and shoulder-fired missiles. "You want weapons [in a militia] that are more discriminate," he says.

Gregg Carter, a professor of sociology at Bryant University who has published on gun politics for much of his career, is a keen shooter who also supports gun control. He, too, doubts the Newtown massacre will prompt sweeping changes.

"I'm old enough to have seen a lot of killing sprees," he says. "The horror and the shock you are seeing now is comparable to the mood after Columbine [in 1999]."

He notes that the 1994 ban - which was so full of loopholes the manufacturers barely paused in their sales - was passed only because Clinton had made it a priority and the Democratic Party held both the Senate and the House.

He believes a push to ban high-capacity magazines might have a chance, and increased controls on sales through gun shows might succeed. A ban on assault rifles might be too hard.

And no one in America, he says, will tackle handguns. "Handguns are part of American culture."

True. But according to the FBI, last year 12,664 people were shot dead by handguns, compared with just 323 by rifles - including semi-automatics.

AMERICA’S GUN CULTURE BY THE NUMBERS

■ 47,856 Number of people killed in the US by firearms between 2006 and 2010

■ 47% Percentage of Americans who say they have a gun in their home or elsewhere on their property, according to Gallup, the highest reported number in two decades

■ $6 billion Estimated revenue generated by the gun and ammunition industry in the US, according to an analysis by business research firm Hoovers

■ 310 million Estimated number of firearms in the US, according to the federal government, which includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns

■ 209,750 Number of jobs related to the firearm industry in 2012, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which estimates that $9.8 billion in wages are earned annually

■ 30% Percentage increase in employment in the industry between 2008 and 2011, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation

■ 131,806 Number of federally licensed firearms and ammunition dealers in the US, about four times as many as the number of grocery stores.

■ 5,459,240 Number of new firearms manufactured in the US in 2011, 95% of which are sold domestically

■ 3,252,404 Number of firearms imported into the US in 2010

■ 16,808,538 Number of background checks on firearm purchasers conducted by the FBI this year to November, an all-time record

■ 78,211 Number of firearm purchase denials by the FBI in 2011, about 0.48% of all attempted purchases

■ 899,099 Number of firearm purchases denied by the FBI between November 30, 1998, and December 31, 2011 – 7879 denied because of the would-be purchaser’s mental health

■ 62% Percentage of private gun sellers who agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer who couldn’t pass a background check Other sources: FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)

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