Barack Obama’s hope of revolutionising gun laws in America has become his Sisyphean boulder
Guns, guns, guns. Here we go again. It’s one of America’s favourite political debates and yet the one where the least progress has been made. Obama tried to push through significant gun reform in the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook massacre back in 2012; his administration’s proposed legislation would have expanded background checks as well as banning some semi-automatic weapons; disappointingly, it was defeated in the Senate in April 2013. This therefore seems to answer one of the main questions to arise from the recent news that Obama is planning to use executive action to reform America’s weak and vague gun laws: why has he waited so long?
As already mentioned, his attempts to legitimately pass a bill to bring the 2nd amendment into the twenty-first century have been blocked at every turn, by both Congress and the Supreme Court. This is the political reality. Unsurprisingly, the pro-gun group the NRA took a much more cynical approach to Obama’s recent proposals, proclaiming that ‘the timing of this announcement, in the eighth and final year of his presidency, demonstrates not only political exploitation but a fundamental lack of seriousness’.
Serious cynicism indeed, especially given what seemed like genuine tears from the leader of the free world when he delivered a moving speech recalling the innocent young lives lost to senseless gun violence.
Another question we might ask ourselves in the new year is what impact will this revelation have on the 2016 election? Quite frankly, not much. The predicable partisanship is clearly reflected in the reactions of presidential candidates of both parties, which plays into a wider narrative in America of political polarisation resulting in a lack of common ground across the political divide. Hillary took to Twitter to unequivocally support the President’s actions, writing ‘we can protect the Second Amendment while protecting our families and communities from gun violence’, and Sanders took a swipe at Republicans who he claimed favoured the gun lobby over the interests of ‘children and innocent Americans’.
Contrastingly, all GOP candidates flat out rejected Obama’s (rather limited) proposal. Marco Rubio claimed it was yet another link in the chain of Obama’s ‘obsession’ with undermining the 2nd amendment, while Ted Cruz (famous of course for his astute and carefully considered political opinion) labelled the use of executive orders ‘unconstitutional’. Although Article 2, Section 3, Clause 5 of the Constitution states that the executive should ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ (implying that the President has unilateral executive authority over the federal bureaucracy), political commentators anticipate legal challenges. Those on the right will claim there is no basis in law for Obama’s actions to have any legitimacy, and moreover, many see Obama’s actions as an expedient attempt to make law without a democratic mandate. It really is a poisonous and predicable combination of Obama-bashing and hyperbolic gun-toting, liberty-loving rhetoric.
Inconveniently for the political conservative right, it seems public opinion is not on their side. Support for the measures crosses party lines with 85 per cent of Democratic voters and 51 per cent of Republican voters saying they support the moves (CNN). Confusingly however, 57 per cent of people don’t seem to think the changes will actually be effective. Does this mean that Republican support is grounded in the belief that this won’t be a huge burden on their ability to purchase arms? Maybe, although Democratic support for gun control actions they feel will be ineffective is harder to get your head around.
Obama is adamant that, despite the division on the issue, ‘all of us can agree that it makes sense to do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who would do others harm, or themselves harm’. Despite this, another CNN poll revealed that 54 per cent of people disapprove of Obama’s decision to bypass Congress and implement changes using his executive power, suggesting that even though many people might agree with the political intention, they aren’t happy with the mechanism by which it is being achieved.
Ultimately, it seems this political announcement has thrown up more problems than it solves. It seems such a shame that even small progress cannot be achieved in the wake of the political polarisation that characterizes modern American politics. Regardless of the consensus Obama musters among the American people, it is the decision makers in Congress and the Courts that can create and maintain real change, and it looks as if they both have a gun held to Obama’s head.