Like everyone else, I was horrified last Friday by the news of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
This, the latest in a seemingly endless list of mass gun killings in the US, is made all the more painful by the facts that it took place in the supposedly safe environs of a school and that so many of the victims were young children. I have never seen President Obama as emotional – or, indeed, as human and frail – as he was at the White House press conference afterward. There is no doubt but that he was thinking of his own children. All of us who are parents, no matter where we are in the world, had the very same thought run through our minds.
It is strange to be an American living in Ireland (or anywhere else around the globe, for that matter) when tragic events take place in the US. The media communication of and public reaction to what happened in Newtown and what’s happened in too many other American cities and towns in recent years, however, are distinguishable from the aftermath of what took place on 9/11 or in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck or in New York when Storm Sandy recently wreaked havoc.
Coverage of and discussions about the latter events were infused with heartfelt empathy and solidarity. But the coverage and discussions I’ve been privy to over the past few days are not. Instead, the hallmarks of the Irish consideration of what took place last Friday are weariness with and palpable anger about what allows massacres like the one in Newtown to happen. And like it or not, that is the gun culture that permeates the US. Irish people cannot understand why or how anyone can lawfully possess or easily gain access to the type of high-powered weaponry used to slaughter innocent children and their teachers last Friday.
Irish people took to social media, especially to Twitter, as well as to traditional news outlets, to vent their dismay and sorrow about what occurred. For so many of them, the gun culture is the one thing they just can’t accept about a country they love so much. Those whose exasperated sentiments follow are just a few of them.
On Twitter, Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin writes, “Looking at the absolute horror in Newtown, CT, it continues to baffle and frustrate me how anyone can argue against greater gun control in US.” Rosita Boland, an Irish Times journalist, writes that “Obama can’t go a third time for office. The true legacy for him is tackling gun control. I guess harder even than health.” And Irish Examiner columnist Colette Browne adds with no small amount of understandable cynicism: “The most offensive thing many conservatives will find about this latest mass shooting is any subsequent debate about gun control.”
Perhaps most compelling and poignant of all the reactions to the massacre in Newtown came from someone who knows the town and the Sandy Hook Elementary School intimately. Siobhán Brett, a Sunday Business Post reporter, actually used to live in Newtown and attended the school herself. She recalls the long commute to Manhattan that her father endured because of the peace that her family and many others found in the small Connecticut town. For her, and for everyone with any connection to Newtown, that peace is no more. My thoughts and prayers are with them.
While the families and friends of those affected by what happened have a long and torturous grieving process ahead, what, if anything, will result from Newtown? Will this be just another horrendous massacre that makes people sad, then angry, yet is ultimately forgotten? Will there be any re-examination of the gun culture in the US and the incredibly liberal legal regime that allows high-powered weapons to be owned, carried and concealed with minimal restrictions in many states? Will anyone stand up to the National Rifle Association? Indeed, the NRA is so powerful that President Obama studiously avoided the issue of gun control – the third rail of American politics – in his successful re-election campaign.
Although I am an inveterate and hardened cynic about politics, I am cautiously optimistic that Newtown may be the first straw of many straws that will be necessary to break the camel’s back on the issue of gun control in the US. I say this primarily because of the reaction of pro-gun politicians over the past few days. Specifically, Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from gun-friendly West Virginia, says that “[T]his has changed the dialogue…everything should be on the table…I don’t know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle.” Past tragedies notwithstanding, this marks the first occasion on which I have heard the recently re-elected Senator Manchin, who I have long had great respect for, dare to challenge the gun lobby. And I suspect he is not alone.
No one would suggest that the US could, would or even should adopt the type of strict gun control laws that prevail in Ireland, the UK and in much of continental Europe. But there is no justification for allowing largely unfettered access to weaponry that no sportsman needs to hunt and no homeowner needs to defend his family. I’m a lawyer and I refuse to accept the school of thought which asserts that a ban on high-powered weapons violates the right to bear arms contained in the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution.
I believe that many Americans agree with me. I believe a lot more will gravitate toward this line of thinking after Newtown. I think some politicians will follow. And I think stricter, more rational gun laws may ultimately result. My only regret is that history will show that it took the slaughter of 20 innocent children and 6 of their teachers to get the US to this point – if we really have gotten to it. In the meantime, I can’t and won’t blame Irish people for heaping scorn on the country of my birth for its sickening gun culture.