This week, Obama began his final year in office by boldly and emotionally addressing “the greatest frustration” of his presidency – firearm reform.
Announcing a slate of executive actions including expanded background checks and licencing requirements – and working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ensure stringent enforcement of existing law – Obama will bypass a congress that remains willfully paralysed on the issue.
Flanked by the loved ones of shooting victims from Sandy Hook, Charleston, Aurora and other places now synonymous with mass murder, Obama emphasised that “the United States is not the only country on earth with violent or dangerous people...but we are the only advanced country that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency."
Obama’s sentiments echo a report by the Small Arms Survey which found that the US represents 5% of the world's population but accounts for 35–50% of the world’s civilian owned firearms – the greatest number per capita. Unsurprisingly, the US has a firearm homicide rate to match, ranking first and greatly surpassing other developed nations.
While gun reform remains an essentially domestic policy issue, international comparison is often cited by pro-reformers. They offer firearm control models that have worked elsewhere in the past and highlight the inadequacy of responses to gun violence in the US to date. Oftentimes, this includes mention of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s successful post-Port Arthur reforms in 1996.
Following the Oregon Community College shooting last October, Obama said that:
"We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours, countries like ours. When Australia had a mass killing, the entire country said ‘well, we’re gonna completely change our gun laws’. And they did. And it hasn’t happened since.”
However, for all our cultural similarities and enduring alliance, mirroring the Australian reality will be difficult due to a number of structural and political differences:
The president’s power is constrained
Obama’s latest executive action represents all he can do from a unilateral, presidential standpoint. For hardball legislative change congress needs to be on board. They have indicated that they are certainly not. Following the horrific murder of twenty school children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Obama’s mere background check legislation was voted down in the Senate despite majority public support.
Further, Obama has spent much of his second term in gridlock with the Republican controlled congress. The House of Representatives in particular blocks almost any initiative that Obama supports. Obama alluded to this political vendetta in his recent address, asking “how did gun reform become such a polarised issue? George W. Bush said he believed in universal background checks as president, so how did we get here?”
In stark comparison, John Howard was able to achieve the necessary bipartisan support from all states within twelve days, implementing firearm laws and a gun buyback funded by an increased Medicare levy.
Second Amendment protectionism, and its biggest proponent - the NRA - is formidable
Obama realises that, for many, talk of even the mildest gun reform is seen as an infringement on individual liberty. The Second Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a sacred text, the bedrock of the nation. Nobody espouses this view more loudly, and emphatically, than the well-funded, politically entrenched NRA, and its members, who vehemently attack any political move that touches the Second Amendment. The answer, according to Obama, is to “fight just as passionately” and to change the existing rhetoric that reform is not consistent with the Second Amendment.
Conversely, Australia is informed by a different set of historical and cultural circumstances regarding individual liberty. As the only advanced nation without a constitutionally enshrined bill of rights, ‘the right to bear arms’ is non-existent. As a result, our much less influential gun lobby is concerned more with the right to hunt and farm than the inalienable right to protect oneself, be it from a despotic ruler or crazed gunman.
It is clear that one devastating incident will not induce swift, radical change in the US. What is needed now is a national cultural shift and Obama seeks to set the wheels in motion. It will be up to state governments to respond to growing constituent demands to steer firearm reform in a positive direction.
Encouragingly, this has begun. Twenty-one states have introduced laws that make it harder to buy or carry a firearm in the last three years. Of course, for every step forward the nation will take two steps back, with some states enacting laws making it easier to carry firearms - be it Texas’ recent open carry legislation, or Georgia’s ‘guns everywhere’ bill.
With each shooting in the US, Australia watches on, opining that we could teach America a thing or two. But the reality is that America is dealing with a level of political complexity that we did not face. According to Obama, this is a fight that will take “a long time”, but there is no fight more worthwhile – even if to stop just one act of violence.
Sophie Wilson is the June - December 2015 US Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons