Obama’s chance for gun law change

Sir Peter Lampl draws parallels with Dunblane after the Newtown massacre.

Watching with horror reports from Newtown, Connecticut last weekend of the killing of 20 young children and six of their teachers, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities with Dunblane.

Back in March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into a classroom in that Scottish town, armed with a small arsenal of legally owned guns. It took him just three minutes to kill sixteen 5 and 6 year-olds and their teacher.

But while those two tragedies share a chilling resemblance, I hope that what followed from Dunblane provides President Obama with the inspiration to ban at least some of the deadly weapons that have blighted so many American lives.

When I moved to Boston in the seventies, I was shocked to discover there were more murders in that city each year than in the whole of Britain. Moving back to Britain before Dunblane, I worried that this country was moving in the same direction.

Yet that tragedy led to a fundamental change in the UK.  At the time, I read that a campaign was being organised to ban handguns, so I asked how I could help. Two weeks later, two fathers whose young daughters had been killed showed up in my living room. This moving experience led me to fund the campaign.

The campaign won the support of both John Major and Tony Blair, and proved so successful that it resulted in a complete ban on the private ownership of handguns in Britain.

It changed my life too, as its amazing success encouraged me to devote the next 16 years to education philanthropy, and to the formation of the Sutton Trust a year later.

But Dunblane was not the only mass killing that year to lead to positive change. Six weeks after Dunblane, a killing spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania claimed 35 lives and wounded 18. That massacre led to change too: a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns across Australia. The ban worked. A Sydney University study found that in the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the ten years afterwards.

I’ve spent so much of my working life in the United States that I have no illusions about our different attitudes. Cold hard facts will not be enough to sway those whose attachment to the constitutional right to bear arms is as strong as the Biblical literalism of the most convinced Creationist.

Last year, I visited a Florida gun show. Hundreds of stalls legally sold every type of weapon imaginable, from samurai swords and tiny handguns that fit in a pocket or purse to semi-automatics like that used in Newtown. There are 5,000 such shows across America annually. US federal law requires gun dealers normally to be licensed and perform background checks, but this requirement does not extend to “occasional sales” at gun shows.

Whenever I switch on the local news in the US, it’s the same story. Someone has been shot dead in a shopping mall, in a side street or at traffic lights. While mass murders make national headlines, the pervasive availability of guns – there are 300 million in circulation, around one per person – means that they are routinely used to settle disputes.

Masses die and are injured each year as a result, with no fanfare. United Nations statistics show that there are nearly 10,000 homicides a year involving firearms in the US, or 3.2 for every 100,000 people. This compares with rates of 0.1 in the UK and Australia.

Yet, support for gun control has fallen. After violent crime rose during the seventies and eighties, President Clinton felt able to outlaw assault weapons. Gallup reported 78 per cent of Americans backing gun control in 1990. By contrast, the most recent Gallup poll on the issue found 54 per cent wanting no change (a fifth of them wanted laxer laws) and only 44 per cent supporting tougher laws.

The Clinton ban lasted ten years, but was not renewed in 2004. The author of the legislation, Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to reintroduce it next month, and I hope she is successful. But she faces formidable foes in the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbyists.

People carry guns because they know others do too. Fear of guns is as damaging as their ready availability. And it is white males like me who are the least likely to back gun control. Some Florida friends of mine keep guns in their cars, so any altercation could turn fatal. If someone breaks into my Florida home, they will almost certainly have a gun, making it a life and death situation; here it is more likely to be just another burglary.

After Friday’s massacre, President Obama has a unique window of opportunity to break the cycle of fear and persuade his fellow Americans a ban on assault weapons is essential in stopping such senseless killing. I hope he takes it.

A version of this blog appeared in Wednesday’s Times.

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